A barge that sunk in 1943 has become visible in the Po River in northern Italy, evidence of the severe, historic drought of the country’s biggest river, running from the Alps near Turin to the Adriatic Sea near Venice.
Along other stretches, much of the riverbed has become walkable hard dirt.
Normally threatening to flood, the Po River is now on average seven metres below normal water levels, with water deficits of up to 80% in some areas.
It’s a perfect storm of low precipitation and high temperatures, triggering the worst drought in 70 years, according to the Po River Water Authority.
Problems started last winter with snowfall, which runs down from the mountains as it melts in spring, 70% below average. In the four months since then, it has barely rained, while a spring heat wave in May and June—that also hit much of Europe—meant higher temperatures that vaporised the shallow water flowing through the river’s sandy banks.
The effects are being felt by both households and farms. The Po River Valley produces around 40% of the country’s food, including wheat, rice, and tomatoes, and also runs through Italy’s most densely populated regions. In 125 cities, drinking water is being rationed, Euronews reports. If it doesn’t rain soon, the next restriction will be on agricultural use.
“We have guaranteed water for agricultural use until July 9th,” said Attilio Fontana, the governor of Lombardy in North Italy, on Italian news channel SkyTG24 on June 30th. “After that, if it doesn’t rain, it will be an issue.”
30% of the rice crop has already been lost. According to the farm lobby, another 30% of crops, including forage, barley, and grain, are at imminent risk. In the balance are as much as 3 billion euros in agriculture products.
The Po River also supplies water to the areas that produce Italy’s most well-known cheese, Parmigiano Reggiano, but no water means no milk to make cheese.
Unirrigated fields that once fed the milk cows are now meagre stubble, causing cows to already produce less milk due to stress. If further water restrictions set in, cows may not produce the quality of milk required for the cheese to get the official stamp as parmigiano, and farmers will be forced to sacrifice parts of their herds.
Increasing salinization near the Adriatic Sea is also exacerbating the effects of the drought. Salty sea water has encroached on the river delta, turning formerly fresh water into saline poison for crops. Recent samples have found salt water more than 30 kilometres upstream from the sea, and as the river drops lower, the sea will continue to creep in.
Besides intensifying problems in the already tough cereals and animal feed markets, as Italy is a net exporter of agricultural products, the drought is also having repercussions in energy production.
Hydroelectric power supplies 15% of Italy’s electricity, but the low rainfall means the production of hydroelectric power is down 50% so far this year compared to 2021. According to local newspapers, some power plants along the river have had to stop operations, as they can’t run without cooling water pumps. At the same time, power companies are facing pressure to release water from their already record-low hydroelectric reservoirs to provide needed water for other sectors such as farming.
The Po River, once feared for being prone to spring floods, may become the source of fresh horror as multiple crises in Italy play out due to the absence of water.