Italy’s Po Valley rations water amid worst drought in 70 years

Four northern Italian regions are preparing to declare a state of emergency over a major drought threatening crops and forcing towns in the Po Valley to ration water.

A view shows the dessicated bed of the river Po in Boretto, northeast of Parma, on June 15, 2022.
The dessicated bed of the river Po in Boretto, northeast of Parma, on June 15th, 2022. Photo by Piero CRUCIATTI / AFP.

Regional president Attilio Fontana told reporters on Thursday the situation was “extremely delicate” in the valley, which stretches across the north and houses a crucial agricultural sector.

Fontana said the drought was the worst in 70 years and that a state of emergency was likely to be declared for Lombardy, home to Milan, as well as three neighbouring regions: Piedmont, Veneto and Emilia Romagna.

The Po River is Italy’s largest reservoir of fresh water and much of it is used by farmers.

Some areas have now been without rain for over 110 days, according to the Po River observatory.

With no rain forecast, councils have begun installing water tankers and imposing hosepipe pans.

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Utilitalia, a federation of water companies, has asked mayors in 100 towns in Piedmont and 25 in Lombardy to suspend nighttime drinking water supplies to replenish reservoir levels.

The drought is putting over 30 percent of national agricultural production and half of livestock farming in the valley at risk, Italy’s largest agricultural association, Coldiretti, said Thursday.

The low level of the Po is also leading to salt seawater infiltration into low-lying agricultural areas, compounding farmers’ problems, it said.

Boats lie on a dessicated bank of the river Po in Boretto, northeast of Parma, on June 15th, 2022. Photo by Piero CRUCIATTI / AFP

The report says that more than a quarter (28 percent) of Italian national territory is at risk of desertification, both in southern and northern regions.

Lake Maggiore and Lake Como in the north are also at worrying low levels – 22.7 percent and 30.6 percent respectively.

The problem in the Po Valley is worsened by the fact that the snow on the Lombard and Piedmontese Alps has completely run out, and it’s feared that the melting glaciers and mountain springs which helped alleviate the problem in May could also dry up in the coming months.

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It’s “perfect storm, a year like this has never been seen before,” Meuccio Berselli, secretary general of the Po River District Authority, told the Ansa news agency.

“The snow on the Alps has completely disappeared, glaciers in a state of exhaustion, temperatures higher than average, scarce rains, hot winds that dry the soils … The Po has not had such a low flow rate for 70 years, but the truth is that we will see it even lower”.

Temperatures in the area are forecast to reach up to 30C over the weekend and up to 35C into next week.

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Historic drought resurfaces World War II bomb in Italy’s River Po

Historically low water levels in northern Italy's River Po exposed an unexploded WWII-era bomb over the weekend.

Historic drought resurfaces World War II bomb in Italy's River Po

Bomb disposal experts from the Italian military were called on to safely detonate the 450kg bomb, which they achieved via a controlled explosion on Sunday.

Around 3,000 residents from the nearby village of Borgo Virgilio near Mantua in northern Italy were evacuated as a safety precaution, according to army officials.

“At first, some of the inhabitants said they would not move, but in the last few days, we think we have persuaded everyone,” the village’s mayor Francesco Aporti told Reuters.

READ ALSO: Venice shuts down for WWII-era bomb removal

The bomb, which reportedly contained 240kg of explosives, was transferred to a quarry approximately 30km away from where it was discovered before being blown up.

The device came to light after a months-long drought – described as Italy’s worst in 70 years – caused parts of the River Po to dry up, leaving its riverbed exposed for the first time in decades.

Italy, along with much of continental Europe, has suffered from a series of extreme heatwaves over the summer, causing devastation to its agricultural sector and a sharp increase in wildfires.

The approximately four thousand risotto rice paddies in the Po Valley around the River Po have been particularly hard hit, with farmers forced to abandon some fields altogether try to rescue others.

READ ALSO: Italy’s risotto rice fields decimated by worst drought in decades

“The situation is desperate, not to say apocalyptic,” one rice farmer told AFP news agency in late July.

Italy supplies more than half of the European Union’s rice, most of which is grown in the Po Valley in a 220,000-hectare area stretching west from Pavia in Lombardy to Vercelli and Novara in Piedmont.