Updated: Jul 24
Northern Italy, which makes up 40% of Italy's agriculture, is in a drought for the first time in 70 years. The Italian government declared a state of emergency for five regions: Emilia-Romagna, Friuli Venezia Giulia, Lombardy, Piemonte, and Veneto, until the end of the year. The country plans to spend $37 million dollars to cope with the water crisis brought on by lack of rain and dwindling water levels in the Po and Dora Baltea River basins. Both rivers feed one of the most important agricultural regions in all of Europe. The Po River basin is home to 17 million population, one-third of the population of Italy. The hardest hit in this region is the arborio rice used in Risotto whose harvest has been reduced by 30%.
The Guardian newspaper cited an analyst at market research group Mintec, namely Kyle Holland, who warned that the overall Italian production of olive oil will likely drop by 20% to 30% as compared to the supplies exported last year despite the COVID-19 pandemic supply chain disruption.
How much water does rice need to grow? For every pound of the grain that is produced, rice requires around 600 gallons of water. Rice grows in a paddy field which is usually submerged in water. Water protects the crop from extreme temperatures and prevents weeds from growing. This is one of the few crops that can tolerate water submergence. Rice is often grown in river deltas across the world which is fertile land and ideal for farming. But these low-lying areas are sensitive to swings in the water cycle. It is very hard for farmers to strike the perfect balance between too much and too little water. Because deltas sit on the coast, drought brings another threat: salt. When there rivers run low saltwater creeps into the soils and irrigation canals of the rice fields. Italy's Po river basin is no exception. The high summer temperatures add to the farmer's woes and have significantly reduced production.
So, how is Italy dealing with this crisis?
The irrigation authority in the northwestern region around the Sesia river has already ordered that fruit trees and poplars no longer be watered. The saved water will be used to irrigate the economically important rice crop. The mayor of the city of Verona has announced that watering gardens and sports fields, washing cars and patios, and filling pools and swimming pools are now prohibited until the end of August to safeguard drinking water supplies. Vegetable gardens may only be watered at night.
Pisa a city in Italy has also resorted to rationing. As of this month, drinking water can only be used "for domestic use and personal hygiene." Failure to comply will result in fines of up to 500 euros ($516). In Milan, meanwhile, all decorative water fountains have been turned off. The mayor of the small town of Castenaso wants to tackle the problem unconventionally: He has banned hairdressers and barbers from washing their customers' hair twice. There are 10 hairdressers in the small town of 16,000 inhabitants, with the measure aiming to save thousands of liters of water per day (source: DW media)
To better manage the water crisis across the globe we have to think of long-term solutions and adapt to climate change at every level from individuals to farmers to governments.