Water Worries

As ever, the summer warnings about water shortages are being sounded, maybe a little earlier than usual. You can’t miss them wherever you are in Italy, particularly in the fertile Po plain. Newspaper pictures of a dwindling Po have become as predictable as beach umbrellas on the Adriatic or the jetset partying on the Costa Smeralda.

Farmers are rightly very worried: they face the prospect of their work being completely jeopardized and no longer know where they can get hold of water for irrigation. They are requesting hydro schemes to release a little from storage but it is not enough, they wonder why, in spite of a fairly rainy winter and spring, water has already disappeared and the snow up in the mountains is taking its time to melt.

We have got to the point where already in June, the saline wedge in the Po delta (where sea water enters the river system), had pushed 25 kilometers upstream, blighting fields and crops. Along nearly all the course of the river, hydrometric levels are considerably below normal and, if it does not rain, are expected to beat all the records.

And every year we try to explain this phenomenon, which seems to be giving farmers no respite. We are always late asking for a state of emergency to be declared. There are no institutions implementing resource management plans, programs to maintain, save, recover or recycle water, or carrying out infrastructure works. The Po is tired, the driving spirit of the great Italian plain is polluted and exploited by excessive, irresponsible abuse.

It may appear that with the summer heat and lack of rain, it is all the fault of the weather, but we should examine the situation more constructively without just railing against fate. It is worldwide problem: what is happening in Italy is exactly the same as in other parts of the planet. The French daily Le Monde has published the following figures: 97% of the Earth’s water is saltwater, only 3% is fresh water-and two thirds of that is ice. In 1950 the annual amount of water per inhabitant was 16,800 cubic meters; today it is about 7,300 and it is estimated the figure will be down to 4,800 by 2025. The trend is clear, and here is another set of data worth thinking about: 73% of the Earth’s fresh water is used for agriculture, 21% for industry and 6% for domestic use. But there is also a difference in the volumes used in the developed and developing countries: between 300 and 600 liters a day for Europe and North America, around 50/100 liters in Asia and Latin America, down to 10/40 in Africa.

We use too much water, it is not only a question of drought or disastrous lack of rain: we use 10 liters of water to produce one liter of gas; and 30 to produce one liter of beer. But do farmers realize that producing one kilo of corn uses 1,500 liters of water? And a kilo of rice 4,500? Industry is no better: 100,000 liters of water for one kilo of aluminum. So we inveigh against the heavens, appeal for rain, rightly hold to account the authorities who should look ahead and deal with and manage these crises, because it is one of the most serious issues we will face in the future.

But we should also begin to think about how much we waste in agriculture, how liberally we dispense it, how abundance has gone to our heads. The Po, which we should heed like a wise father, shows us the evidence of our unsustainable situation every year. I wonder what will make us change our ways, study new methods of irrigation, carry out educational and information campaigns on the proper use of water. There are experts all over the world who have invented low-consumption irrigation methods, techniques to save and recover every single drop. As long as we continue to think we are exempt from the dramatic and complex situation facing the world’s water resources, and waste it as though it was limitless, we will run into nasty surprises.

I do not mean to point the finger at anyone in particular: we should all feel partly to blame. But we all need to take practical action: farmers, industry, technical experts, scientists, the public and institutions. Let’s not be stupid: the great river is dying and the land with it

First printed in La Stampa on July 2, 2006

Adapted by Ronnie Richards

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