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ENVIRONMENT

Milan to turn off fountains as drought grips Italy

The northern Italian city of Milan plans to take drastic measures to address its current water crisis.

Water supply to fountains in the Italian city of Milan will be shut off - and not for the first time.
Water supply to fountains in the Italian city of Milan will be shut off - and not for the first time. (Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP)

The mayor of Milan on Saturday announced the northern Italian city’s fountains would be switched off as part of water restrictions imposed due to a drought.

Beppe Sala announced the measures the day after the wider Lombardy region declared a state of emergency to last until September 30, directing mayors to curtail non-essential water use.

Drought in Italy: What water use restrictions are in place and where?

An emergency decree would include the “closure of all the fountains except those where fauna and flora are present and the lakes and irrigation ditches of city parks”, Milan’s mayor said in a statement.

But he said drinking fountains would keep running, noting temperatures have been above 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) for weeks and a fresh heatwave was due imminently.

Sala did not say when the measures would take effect, and city authorities did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“The drought emergency continues and measures must be taken,” he said, adding that everyone must do their part.

He called on citizens to minimise their use of drinking water for cleaning and watering the plants, and said irrigation systems feeding public lawns and green spaces would be stopped, except for newly planted trees.

Temperatures in offices, shops and homes should be kept at 26 degrees or above, “to reduce the consumption of energy and therefore reduce the risk of blackouts”, he said.

Municipalities across Italy have begun introducing water rationing after an unusually hot and dry spring sparked widespread alarm.

The Po river, Italy’s longest river and its largest reservoir of fresh water, is suffering its worst drought for 70 years.

The Po river in Italy is currently at its lowest level in years.

The Po river in Italy is currently at its lowest level in years. (Photo by Piero CRUCIATTI / AFP)

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

Further to the west in Piedmont, water is being rationed in more than 200 municipalities, according to the ANSA news agency.

The Maggiore and Garda lakes are both far lower than usual for this time of year, while further south, the level of the River Tiber that runs through Rome has also dropped.

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CLIMATE CRISIS

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

The biggest rice-growing area in Italy has dried out, devastating the agricultural sector and leading to fears of a shortage of arborio and carnaroli rice in Europe.

Italy's risotto rice fields decimated by worst drought in decades

The roar of Dario Vicini’s motorcycle cuts through the silence as he drives across his rice paddy to survey the destruction wrought by Italy’s worst drought in 70 years.

His fields are nothing but desolation, with rice stems slowly dying in the sandy ground.

“Under normal circumstances, I would never have been able to ride my motorcycle over the field,” Vicini explained to AFP. 

“At this time of year, the plants would be up to my knees and the rice field would be flooded,” he said.

“Here, they’re tiny, because the water needed to irrigate them has never arrived.” 

READ ALSO: Drought in Italy: What water use restrictions are in place and where?

Vicini’s “Stella” farm, located in the village of Zeme in the Po Valley, 70 kilometres southwest of Milan, is part of Italy’s “golden triangle” of rice paddies.

Italy supplies half of the European Union’s rice, and this is the country’s predominant rice-growing area, stretching west from Pavia in Lombardy to Vercelli and Novara in Piedmont.

Vicini said the area’s last “decent rain” came in December.

Farmer Dario Vicini crosses his rice field on motorbike to see the extent of the damage caused by the drought, in Zeme, northern Italy. Photo by Brigitte HAGEMANN / AFP

“It’s the fault of climate change,” said the 58-year-old farmer, who estimates his income has fallen by 80 to 90 percent.

Enrico Sedino, another farmer in the area, is even more worried: “If there’s no more water, I can lose up to 100 percent of my turnover,” he said.

Around the rice paddies, cracks are visible in the parched earth and the feeble, stunted rice shoots are covered with a thin layer of dust.

The small irrigation canals that run alongside the fields are dry, or nearly so. 

The waters of the Po River – Italy’s longest river whose flat drainage basin is the wide, fertile plain perfect for growing rice – are this year at a historically low level not seen since 1952.

The water, when it comes, arrives in dribs and drabs.

fish skeleton on dried-up Po River in Italy

This photo taken on July 5, 2022, show a dead fish skeleton on the river bank of the Po River at Polesella village, near Rovigo city, in the region of Veneto, amid the worst drought to affect northern Italy’s rivers in 70 years. (Photo by Andrea PATTARO / AFP)

Zeme Mayor Massimo Saronni, a rice farmer himself for three decades, said that not only is the harvest suffering “but the whole ecosystem is withering away”.

Before, the rice paddies resounded with the song of crickets and the croaking of frogs, while clouds of dragonflies flittered above the fields. Freshwater birds like grey herons and white ibises fed on insects.

Now, “being in the countryside with such a heavy silence, it’s depressing, you feel like you’re on the moon!” he said. 

Vicini’s 50 hectares are irrigated through the Cavour Canal, which carries the waters of the Po, while other rice paddies in the Pavia region are fed by Lake Maggiore or Lake Como.

But regional authorities have warned that those lakes’ reserves could run out by the end of July.

Early this month, Italy’s national government declared a state of emergency in five regions — Emilia-Romagna, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Lombardy, Veneto and Piedmont — four of which are supplied by the Po.

Farmers are forced to abandon some fields to deal with others. “just like the doctor who during the Covid-19 pandemic chose those with a chance of being saved,” Saronni noted, bitterly.

The Po’s historically low water levels have had catastrophic consequences for Italy’s more than 4,000 rice farms, spread over 220,000 hectares (543,630 acres).

READ ALSO:

Sixty percent of the 1.5 million tonnes of rice produced in Italy each year are exported. Among the more than 200 varieties are the famous Carnaroli, Arborio, Roma and Baldo brands, essential for the preparation of typical
risotto dishes.

Rice consumption rose in 2020 when millions of Italians were forced by the coronavirus lockdown to cook at home.

But now, the country risks a rice shortage, warned Stefano Greppi, president of Pavia’s branch of Italy’s agricultural association Coldiretti.

“The situation is desperate, not to say apocalyptic,” said the rice farmer, estimating the economic damage as “incalculable… millions of millions of euros”.

“If there is no harvest this year, there is a risk that many companies will close down or go bankrupt”.

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