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Major fresh water crisis in Italy

Photo: LuAnn Hunt

The water issue is also hitting Italy harder and harder and its effects have repercussions on the government agenda. Problems that elsewhere have been marking domestic and regional affairs for years now, as for example in the Sahel where desertification is advancing practically in sight, or in Australia or South Africa. Water has long been a matter of interest within the broader Mediterranean and its balances. Still continuing with examples: there has long been talk of revitalizing the Dead Sea, and recently, thanks to the normalizations produced by the Abraham Agreements, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan have signed an agreement for investment on the water (and renewables) sector that could establish new regional balances involving Saudi Arabia as well. In the international context of addressing the increasingly urgent problem of water scarcity and lack of access to clean water, a decision to provide for a Special United Nations Commissioner for Water was announced during the United Nations Conference on Water, which took place in New York between March 22 and 24, 2023.

The conference in question was also attended by an Italian delegation led by Gilberto Pichetto Fratin, minister of environment and energy security. Referring to the critical drought situation Italy is facing, the Italian minister mentioned how a coordination table has recently been established to respond to the crisis, including with new legal and operational tools. Also at the U.N. cross-sectorial “Environment and Health” table, the Italian delegation discussed the prevention and response strategies being developed in a partnership between public and private institutions and stakeholders to protect water resources and health.

Italy more than other European countries therefore has to deal with a rather critical water situation for this reason the Italian government has decided to establish an inter-ministerial control room called to define an extraordinary water plan in agreement with regions and territorial authorities. In addition, a decree law has been issued with simplifications and exemptions to speed up essential works therefore also a commissioner “with executive powers” to expeditiously execute what will be planned. Specifically, the commissioner will be able to act on high-risk territorial areas and will be able to unblock short-term interventions such as mudding and remove gravel from water collection reservoirs, increasing the capacity of reservoirs, management and use of wastewater, mediation in cases of conflicts between regions and local authorities on water matters, and reconnaissance of national water needs. Giorgia Meloni’s program at the head of the Italian government aims to find the best solutions to solve the drought problem, a scourge that is putting a strain on the agribusiness and hydropower sectors.

In fact, there are approximately 300,000 farms in question that reside in the hardest hit areas, according to Coldiretti, the largest association representing and assisting Italian agriculture. This association in addition to raising the alarm has claimed that 2023 has so far been the hottest year ever. In fact, data from the CNR, Italy’s main public research organization the National Research Council, found that January and February recorded a temperature 1.44 degrees higher than the historical average for the first two months. Specifically, it is northern Italy that is most affected by this critical situation with below-average rainfall in the first two months of the year, with almost 30 percent less rainfall recorded in the same period in 2022. This has resulted in Italy’s main river, the Po, struggling as likewise the great lakes of northern Italy, which have fill rates from 19 percent for Lake Como to 36 percent for Lake Garda to 40 percent for Lake Maggiore.

A critical situation was also recorded in Veneto, here at the end of February, the reservoirs on the two basins that are Adige and Piave had a deficit of 33 and 59 percent. The situation in Tuscany is also critical: 2022 was the hottest year since 1800 for the region, according to of data from the Hydrogeological Service and resulted in a rainfall deficit of -11% on average. According to the Italian government’s calculations, it would take approximately 7.8 billion euros to address the problem, a sum that would be available by adding together PNRR funds and other EU and national funds. However, this figure is “blocked by bureaucracy,” according to Agriculture Minister Francesco Lollobrigida. In fact at the moment of the 4 billion euros dedicated in the PNRR only 300 million have been committed. On the other hand, as for what was the sum dedicated in the 2014-2020 European planning of 1.2 billion euros, only 200 million have been used.

The economic damages related to the water emergency are potentially enormous in fact according to some calculations, made by the Observatory established by the Community Valore Acqua per l’Italia published in the 2023 White Paper “Valore Acqua per l’Italia,” 320 billion euros could be at risk between water companies and the extended water supply chain, which is 18 percent of Italian GDP. The Community was created in 2019 by The European House – Ambrosetti to represent the extended water supply chain in Italy through 31 partners ranging from network operators to service providers, from the agricultural sector to the industrial sector, from technology providers to relevant institutions, and scientific partners Utilitalia and Fondazione Utilitatis. From an economic point of view, water is a key resource for making the operations of 1.5 million agricultural enterprises, about 330 thousand water-using manufacturing companies and more than 9 thousand companies in the energy sector, as anticipated earlier.

It should be pointed out that in 2021, the extended water cycle generated an added value of 9.4 billion euros, with an average annual growth of +4.3 percent over the 2010-2021 period (10 times Italian manufacturing) and employs 92,400 people. This supply chain is worth almost as much as the pharmaceutical industry and more than twice as much as the apparel industry. Water is a sector composed almost entirely (97.7 percent) of companies with a turnover of under 50 million euros that contribute only marginally to total revenues, while large companies generate a 63.5 percent contribution to revenues despite accounting for only 3.3 percent of the total. As shown in the White Paper 2023 “Water Value for Italy” with more than 9 billion m3 per year, Italy is the first country in the European Union for water withdrawn for civilian use. The Italian average of drinking consumption reaches 154 m3 per inhabitant, only Greece (157.4) is higher. On the other hand, if we consider water consumption for civilian use, Italians are unrivaled among EU countries: 220 liters per inhabitant per day against an EU average of 165.

Another extremely important problem concerns the Italian water infrastructure as it is old and almost never renovated or modernized, suffice it to say that 60% of the network is more than 30 years old, 25% more than half a century old. The percentage of water losses in the distribution phase reaches 41.2 percent, placing our country in fourth last place among the 27 EU plus UK countries, while the percentage of linear losses of 9,072 m3/km/year places us in last place in Europe. On the other hand, according to the findings of ISTAT, the Italian national institute of statistics, every year the losses of national water networks lead to a waste of 4.5 billion cubic meters of drinking water, suffice it to say that Sicily alone disperses 50.5 percent of the water fed into the network. According to other data in the 2023 White Paper “Value Water for Italy,” in response to this situation, industrial operators in the sector have increased investments by 70 percent over the past 20 years, reaching an average of 56 euros per inhabitant in 2021. The contribution to investment growth, however, is limited by the presence of numerous economy-based managements, especially in the south of Italy, whose average value of investment is around 8 euros per inhabitant over the past 5 years. Thus describing a truly worrying situation. It is therefore imperative to think of solutions that will address this critical situation that has been going on for years now but is unfortunately getting worse and worse faster and will be more crucial than ever to address given the rapid climate changes taking place. If decisions are not made soon, then solutions found to resolve what is happening, the predictions will certainly not be the best.

By Michele Brunori

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