Italy faces another year of severe drought after little winter rain or snow
Italy’s rivers and lakes are facing another year of severe drought after a winter of little rain and snowfall, raising the alarm on the implications for farming, hydropower and access to drinking water.
Vast areas of the Po – the country’s longest river that nourishes several northern and central regions – are already parched, while the water level on Lake Garda is the lowest during winter in 35 years.
Unusually lower water levels in Venice have dried up the lagoon city’s canals, leaving gondolas stranded.
Italy’s National Research Council (CNR) said rainfall in the north was down 40% in 2022 and the absence of precipitation since the beginning of 2023 had been significant.
In particular, the Po, which stretches from the Alps in the north-west and flows through the Po delta before reaching the Adriatic, faces a repeat of last year’s drought – the worst to affect the waterway in seven decades – unless rain arrives in the spring. In the Pavia area of the Po valley the water level is 3 metres below the zero gauge, turning the riverbanks into beaches – a phenomenon usually seen in summer.
“Nothing has changed since 2022,” said Luca Mercalli, the president of the Italian Meteorological Society. “We are still in a situation of deficit … let’s wait for the spring, which is usually the rainiest period for the Po valley. There is a good possibility that rainfall in April and May can compensate – it’s the last hope. If we have no spring rain for two consecutive years then it would be the first time this has ever happened.”
The Po also flows through Emilia-Romagna and Veneto, one of the most important agricultural zones in Europe. Along with 2022, during which there was a protracted heatwave, the valley experienced droughts in 2007, 2012 and 2017, and scientists say their growing prevalence is a further indication of the climate crisis.
Coldiretti, Italy’s biggest farmers’ association, said the 2022 drought caused €6bn (£5.4bn) worth of damage to agricultural produce. It warned that a third of production was at risk this year unless another long and severe drought was averted.
Alessandro Bratti, the president of the Po basin authority, said the situation was most extreme in Piedmont and Lombardy, while in Trentino it was affecting the production of hydroelectric power.
“If you have no water you cannot produce energy, so this is another problem,” Bratti said. “It is very critical because it hasn’t snowed or rained during this period and the forecast says it will stay this way.”
With the Po’s level so low, an additional problem is that sea water encroaches further up the river, filling aquifers and making them unusable for irrigating farmland.
“Last year sea water entered for almost 40km [25 miles], which also causes a problem for drinking water as you need to use desalinators,” said Bratti.
Last summer, the Italian government, which at the time was led by Mario Draghi, released €36.5m of funds to help areas affected by the drought. The move also allowed local authorities to bypass the usual bureaucracy and take immediate action, such as by imposing water rationing measures.
Although the measures were coordinated by the Po basin authority, the body only has the power to advise, such as suggesting ways farmers can use less water.
“There are many entities involved and the protocol at the moment is voluntary,” said Bratti. “There needs to be a law that gives the basin authority the power to work out the problem and decide what to do – it could be telling farmers to stop drawing water for a month or stopping hydroelectric power for a week.”
He said the funds issued by the Draghi administration were still in place but that projects to tackle drought situations had been slow to progress since the new government led by Giorgia Meloni came to power in October.
“We have projects and funds for hydrological infrastructure, such as building barriers to prevent the sea from entering the river,” Bratti added. “There is also a proposal to build 10,000 lakes, and to introduce technical systems to cut down the waste of water in farming. We now need to accelerate the projects.”