Water is so low in large stretches of the Po, Italy’s largest river that authorities fear that if it doesn’t rain soon, there’ll be a serious shortage of water for drinking and irrigation for farmers and local populations across the whole of northern Italy.
Northern Italy hasn’t seen rainfall for more than 110 days and this year’s snowfall is down by 70%. Aquifers, which hold groundwater, are depleted. Temperatures of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above season average are melting the tiny snowfields and glaciers that were left on the top of the surrounding Alps, leaving the Po basin without its summer water reservoirs.
The drying up of the Po, which runs 652 kilometers (405 miles) from the northwestern city of Turin to Venice, is jeopardizing drinking water in Italy’s densely populated and highly industrialized districts and threatening irrigation in the most intensively farmed part of the country, known as the Italian food valley.
“We are in a situation where the river flow is approximately 300 cubic meters (80,000 gallons) per second here in (the riverside village of) Boretto, while normally in this area we have almost 1800 (cubic meters, 476,000 gallons),” explained Meuccio Berselli, secretary general of the Po River Basin Authority.
Berselli is frantically working on a resiliency plan to guarantee drinking and irrigation water to millions of households and to the Po valley farmers, who produce 40% of Italian food. Parmesan cheese, wheat, high-quality tomatoes, rice and renowned grapes grow in huge quantities in the area. The plan includes higher draining from Alpine lakes, less water for hydroelectric plants and rationing of water in the upstream regions. The Po drought comes at a time when farmers are already pushing both irrigation and watering systems to their maximum to counter the effect of high temperatures and hot winds.
The Italian farmers confederation estimates that wheat yields could drop by 20% to 40% this year. Wheat is a particular concern for farmers as it’s completely reliant on rain and does not get irrigated.
The irrigation system is also at risk. Usually, river water is lifted with diesel fueled electric pumps to upper basins and then flows down in the vast fields of the valley through hundreds of waterways. But now, pumps are at risk of failing to draw water and excavators are frantically working to constantly dredge dedicated waterways to ensure the water necessary for irrigation. The water shortage won’t just hamper food production, but energy generation, too.
If the Po dries up, numerous hydroelectric power plants will be brought to a halt, at a time when the war in Ukraine has already hiked up energy prices across Europe. According to a state-owned energy service system operator, 55% of the renewable energy coming from hydroelectric plants in Italy comes from the Po and its tributaries. Experts fear that a lack of hydroelectric power will contribute to increased carbon dioxide emissions, as more electricity will have to be produced with natural gas.