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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
Italy's worst drought in 70 years is devastating rice fields and other crops in northern Italy with estimated losses of over 30 percent of the harvest. Photo by Piero CRUCIATTI / AFP

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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WEATHER

MAP: The hottest parts of Italy this weekend

Italy has placed 16 cities under ‘red alert’ on Saturday as the latest intense heatwave sweeps the country.

MAP: The hottest parts of Italy this weekend

Italy’s latest heatwave is set to peak in all parts of the country “within the next 24-36 hours”, according to weather reports on Friday, with temperatures of “38-40°C in the shade, in particular in the Po Valley, Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio”.

The cities and provinces of Perugia and Palermo are already under the maximum level ‘red alert’ heat warning on Friday, August 5th.

READ ALSO: What temperatures can we expect in Italy in August?

The number rises to 16 on Saturday, with the addition of Bolzano, Brescia, Campobasso, Florence, Frosinone, Latina, Milan, Rieti, Rome, Turin, Trieste, Venezia, Verona and Viterbo.

‘Red alert’ or bollino rosso heat warnings indicate extreme conditions that can be harmful to the health of the general population.

Many other cities in northern and central Italy on Friday were under level two ‘amber alert’ warning, which mean extreme heat poses a risk to more vulnerable groups such as the elderly or very young.

Weather warnings in place in Italy’s main cities for Friday, August 5th. Image: Italian Health Ministry

The stifling conditions in many areas will also worsen air pollution, the ministry warned, meaning that those with respiratory problems or allergies are also liable to suffer.

But even those in good physical health are at risk of dehydration, sunstroke, sunburn and exhaustion, authorities warn.

After a series of prolonged heatwaves this summer, the good news is that the current one won’t last as long, forecasters said on Friday.

“In the north we will see a drop in temperatures already on Sunday, in the centre from Monday, and probably from Tuesday we will be able to breathe again in the south, even with some scattered rain,” wrote Antonio Sanò, director of the Il Meteo weather website.

READ ALSO:

The health ministry is urging people to take precautions including staying indoors in the afternoon when the heat is most intense, drinking plenty of water, and avoiding physical exercise during the day. It also asks people to check on neighbours living alone, particularly the elderly.

The government has also reminded people not to call emergency services unless essential to avoid overstretching resources.

In Italy, prolonged hot and dry conditions this year so far have already resulted in the worst drought in 70 years and a wildfire season three times worse than average.

Experts have repeatedly attributed the increasing frequency and intensity of heatwaves and other extreme weather events in Italy to global heating.

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