In Rome, the waters of the Tiber are so low that tourists are flocking to see the newly exposed ruins of a bridge built during the emperor Nero’s era. In Northern Italy, the Po – called fluviorum rex, the king of rivers, by the ancient Roman poet Virgil – is drying up, exposing a sunken graveyard of wrecked vehicles and barges from the Second World War.
These historic curiosities are of no interest to Italy’s famers; they are in a low-grade panic about the severe drought – the worst in 70 years – and the brutal heatwave gripping the country, which are blamed on climate change. They are worried about plunging production as their fields become parched owing to a lack of rain.
In Umbria, in central Italy, Fausto Venturi, a farmer who devotes his autumns to the olive harvest, fears he will have a second lean year in a row. Last season, the yield from the thousands of trees he uses to make his emerald-green olive oil was down 40 per cent because of extreme temperatures. Unless more rain comes soon, a similar drop could happen this year.
“The drought scares everyone,” he said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. “Unfortunately, we are moving toward a period of 10 or 15 days where temperatures should rise. I remember years ago it was hot, too, but it certainly rained more.”
Mr. Venturi was speaking when the temperature in his part of Umbria, near the medieval city of Spoleto, was 31 C, which is considered refreshingly low this summer in Italy. The temperature around Spoleto is forecast to rise to 37 C by the weekend. Some parts of Italy have seen 40 C or higher.
For the agricultural industry in Italy and elsewhere in Europe, the extreme heat is intensifying the effect of the drought. Late last week, an analysis by Coldiretti, the Italian agriculture association, determined that the month of June was the second-hottest ever recorded in Europe, with temperatures 1.6 degrees above average – 2.88 degrees in Italy.
Coldiretti estimated that the drought has caused €3-billion of damage to Italian crops, with yields for maize and wheat already down 30 per cent. “We ask the EU to support structural measures to tackle the water emergency and ensure water availability at a moment, due to the effects of the war in Ukraine, we need all our potential to guarantee food to citizens,” said Coldiretti president Ettore Prandini.
The north of Italy, in the 650-kilometre-long Po Valley, which stretches from the Western Alps to the Adriatic Sea, is where the drought is hurting agriculture the most.
Early this month, the government of Prime Minister Mario Draghi declared a state of emergency in five Northern Italian regions after water levels in the Po, the biggest freshwater resource in Italy, fell by three-quarters. The crisis is the result of sharply lower rainfall – half the normal level in recent months – high evaporation rates due to the extreme heat and a lack of snowfall in the Alps and the Dolomite mountains. Last week, Tuscany became the first region in central Italy to declare an emergency.
Mr. Draghi said the drought was “undoubtedly” linked to climate change.
The emergency orders will come with €36.5-million in government funds to improve water supplies, especially to repair Italy’s notoriously leaky pipes, which lose almost 40 per cent of their flow. The farmlands near the Adriatic already seem to be a lost cause. Seawater has flowed about 30 kilometres up the Po, destroying the crops along the river’s banks.
Water restrictions have been imposed in dozens of municipalities in Northern Italy, and many towns are so short of water that they are bringing it in by truck. Some of these measures prohibit washing cars and watering gardens.
The most dramatic evidence of climate change in Italy came on July 2, when part of the Marmolada Glacier in the Dolomite mountains – the eastern range of the Alps – collapsed, killing at least 11 climbers. At 3,343 metres, the Marmolada is the highest peak in the Dolomites.
Scant snowfall has left the glaciers unprotected from high spring and summer temperatures, making them vulnerable to collapse as they melt. The temperature near the summit of the Marmolada had reached a record 10 C on the afternoon of the collapse. Scientists say the glacier has lost more than 80 per cent of its volume in the past 72 years and could vanish within 15 years at its current melting rate.
Other Italian alpine glaciers are vulnerable to collapse, notably the Planpincieux Glacier in the Mont Blanc massif. It is sliding as much as two metres a day in the summer heat. Two years ago, the village near the base of the mountain was evacuated for fear the glacier would come crashing down.
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