The Desertification of Italy

A ritual chant on the island of Pantelleria, south of Sicily, calls on the Good Lord (Signurùzzu) to bring rain because aridity is causing the crops to fail, all for the fault of man and his sins. As always, popular wisdom has the knack of interpreting reality with incredible lucidity – in the case in point prophetically.
A few days ago, my attention was captured by a couple of news stories. The first was the holding of a summit in Agrigento to discuss the water emergency in Sicily. The meeting apparently resolved to declare war on the black market in water and decided that, from now on, the distribution of water from tank trucks will be managed by local municipalities. All on account of a chunk of the black economy worth billions of lire.
The second piece of news is that a conference is to be held in Palermo from May 22-25 on ‘Desertification, the new emergency in the Mediterranean basin’. Desertification is an irreversible process which affects over 100 countries round the world and impinges upon the survival of over a million people. The situation is already very serious in the world’s arid zones, but is now also extending to temperate areas, the Mediterranean basin included. In 1997, the Italian Ministry of the Environment estimated that ‘27% of Italian soil is highly vulnerable to the risk of erosion’, and that ‘the regions of Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria, Sicily and Sardinia already display an advanced state of desertification’.
If I think of the desert I think of North Africa: I imagine exotic, non-industrialized, relatively undeveloped countries. Not the South of Italy. Yet the problem exists. It also happens to be very serious, though few people take much notice of it. The fact is that if you look at satellite pictures of Basilicata, you see that the region is no longer as green as it used to be. In actual fact, it’s going yellow. Last year, in the same region, the province of Matera suffered an invasion of grasshoppers from the Sahara. Incredible but true!
The root cause of desertification is the rapid deterioration of the land. In Italy’s case, what we are seeing is more the result of a development process than of the lack of one. Over the centuries, the difficult climate of the South led the inhabitants to live by their wits, inventing the most wild and wonderful systems of irrigation and cultivation. Paradoxically, it is recent economic development that has triggered this new, minboggling situation. The tourist boom has led people to move towards the coast. Combined with emigration to the North, this phenomenon has caused cultivated land to be abandoned and left arid. In the meantime, the concentration of livestock farming in tiny areas has created cases of over-grazing which old-fashioned transhumance used to avoid. On top of that, over a million and a half hectares of woodland have gone up in smoke, and the pollution of the water table as a result of the industrialization and use of the chemicals typical of mass agriculture has aggravated pressure on this precious resource. Indeed, the only result of urbanization, tourist development and the boom in intensive farming has been an exaggerated, irrational use of water. Add to this the climatic changes that are taking place all over the planet, and the picture that emerges is anything but rosy.

Carlo Petrini

from La Stampa 20/05/2001

(English adaptation by John Irving)

  • Did you learn something new from this page?
  • yesno