BORETTO, Italy (AP) — Large stretches of Italy’s largest river are so low that locals walk across sandy expanses and shipwrecks float to the surface.
Authorities fear that if it doesn’t rain soon, there will be a severe water shortage for drinking and irrigation for farmers and local communities across northern Italy.
In a park near the central northern village of Gualtieri, cyclists and hikers stop curiously to watch the 50-meter (164-foot) Zibello barge, which was carrying timber during World War II but sank in 1943. Usually it is covered with Po water.
“This is the first time we’ve seen this barge,” amateur cyclist Raffaele Vezzali said as he got off his pedals to look at the rusty vessel. However, Vezzali was only partially surprised, as he knew that due to the lack of winter rains, the water level in the river had reached an all-time low.
But the outlandish new-surfaced wartime boat and wide sandy beaches can do little to hide the devastation it will cause for locals and farmers.
The drying up of the Po River, which stretches 652 kilometers (405 miles) from the city of Turin in the northwest to Venice, is jeopardizing drinking water in densely populated and highly developed areas of Italy and threatening irrigation in the most heavily cultivated part of the country. like the valley of italian cuisine.
In northern Italy, there was no rain for more than 110 days, and this year there is less snowfall by 70%. Aquifers holding groundwater are depleted. Temperatures 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above the average season are melting the tiny snowfields and glaciers left on the peaks of the surrounding Alps, depriving the Po River basin of its summer water reservoirs.
All of these factors are causing the worst drought in 70 years, according to the Po River Basin Authority.
“We are in a situation where river flow is approximately 300 cubic meters (80,000 gallons) per second here in (coastal village) Boretto, while normally in this area we have almost 1800 (cubic meters, 476,000 gallons) ”, explained Meuccio Berselli, Secretary General of the Po Basin Authority.
The authorities are constantly monitoring the course of the river, but there is very little hope that the weather will help. The light precipitation that fell in the month of June was extreme and localized showers that were not absorbed by the ground and did not reach the Po River and its aquifers.
Berselli is working feverishly on a sustainability plan to guarantee drinking and irrigation water for the millions of households and farmers in the Po Valley, who produce 40% of Italy’s food. Parmesan cheese, wheat and high quality tomatoes, rice and the famous grapes grow in huge quantities in the area.
The resilience plan includes higher flow from alpine lakes, less water for hydroelectric power, and water rationing in upstream regions.
The Po drought comes at a time when farmers are already making the most of both irrigation and irrigation systems to withstand the effects of high temperatures and hot winds.
Martina Codeluppi, a 27-year-old farmer from the tiny rural town of Guastalla, says her fields are fully irrigated with water from the Po River and are already suffering from a lack of winter and spring rains. She said she was expecting a “catastrophic year”.
“With such high temperatures … with no rain, and it looks like it won’t rain in the coming days, the situation is catastrophic,” Codeluppi said as she walked through her family’s fields. She proudly grows pumpkins, watermelons, wheat and grapes on farmland handed down from generation to generation, but she is very worried about this year’s harvest.
“We believe that the yield of this wheat will decrease by at least 20% or more due to lack of rain and irrigation,” she said. The confederation of Italian farmers estimates that wheat yields could fall by 20-40% this year. Wheat is of particular concern to farmers as it is completely dependent on rain and is not irrigated.
The irrigation system is also under threat. Typically, river water is lifted by diesel-powered electric pumps into the upper basins and then drained into the vast fields of the valley via hundreds of streams. But now pumps are in danger of failing to pump water, and excavators are working feverishly, constantly dredging special waterways to provide the water needed for irrigation.
Water shortages will hamper not only food production, but also energy production. If the Po dries up, numerous hydroelectric plants will be shut down, while the war in Ukraine has already driven up energy prices across Europe.
According to the state power system operator, 55% of the renewable energy generated by hydroelectric power plants in Italy comes from the Po River and its tributaries. Experts fear that the shortage of hydroelectric power will contribute to an increase in carbon dioxide emissions, as more electricity will have to be generated from natural gas.
“In addition to the critical situation, we are creating an additional devastating situation,” Berselli of the Po River Authority said of a likely surge in greenhouse gas emissions.
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