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Italy's Po Delta's race against a changing climate

August 15, 2023
topic:Natural disaster
tags:#Italy, #Fisheries, #climate change, #drought
by:Vittoria Torsello
The Po River of Italy winds its way through a fragile region deeply impacted by climate change - the Mediterranean. As its waters wane, a compelling call to action emerges, urging innovative responses to the increasingly capricious nature of weather.

As the sun sets, its rays cast vibrant shades of yellow across the vast expanse of the Po Delta, highlighting the rice plant roots that float in the scarce water that lingers in the canals.

Elisa Moretto, a rice farmer from Italy's Veneto region, carries a family heritage linked to this crop, as depicted by a family photo proudly displayed in her shop. Each year, her farm, situated 20 kilometres from the Delta, cultivates 46 hectares of five distinct rice varieties.

But years of unwavering dedication to her land have led to a difficult realisation for the farmer: The relentless encroachment of the sea has left behind a troubling concentration of salt, suffocating her fields. This foreboding presence serves as a grim foreshadowing, hinting at an impending decline in her future agricultural production.

"My greatest fear is that the sea is reclaiming the land," Moretto lamented.

The year is 2022, and Italy finds itself grappling with the most severe drought in 500 years. Relentless sunlight and meager rainfall have exacted a toll on Elisa's rice crops, leaving the grains parched, charred and hollow. 

"Certainly, what we are witnessing is the outcome of the ongoing climate changes, which are already underway," Ramona Magno, a drought and desertification expert at Cnr (National Research Council), told FairPlanet.

"Moreover, the Mediterranean, including Italy, is considered an exceptionally sensitive area to these climate shifts. As a result, the impacts are more pronounced here than in other regions of the planet, making it one of the most vulnerable zones."

The year 2023, however, carries with it something unanticipated.

Temporary relief to persistent vulnerabilities

Data compiled by Osservatorio Città Climaconfirmed indicates that in 2023, Italy is emerging as one of the European countries most severely affected by extreme climate events.

In May, floods brought a sigh of relief from the scorching temperatures in the country, temporarily alleviating concerns of an impending drought.

"Let's say that this year we are back to normal; from May onwards, we have never encountered any issues," said Mantovani, an engineer from Consorzio di Bonifica Delta del Po.

Nevertheless, as CNR experts pointed out, while the short and medium-term conditions appear to be returning to normalcy, the accumulated rainfall deficit from the past 12-24 months still leaves certain areas in northern Italy grappling with drought.

The climate instability in the small Po Delta region is exacerbating vulnerability among farmers. Lucia La Presa, a soy farmer, finds herself anxious about mounting debts and a lack of adequate subsidies, infrastructure, equipment and the modern farming methods necessary to cope with this new reality. "Without water, I have no idea what can survive," Lucia admitted.

Having inherited her fields and farm in 1983, she understands that developing effective farming solutions takes time. Among the solutions she contemplates is the exploration of assisted evolution technologies (Tea) for climate-resistant plants through genetic improvement.

Meanwhile, she places her faith in the significance of small daily gestures, like reusing water from air conditioners.

As Ramona Magno pointed out, it is essential to consider alternative crop types that are more resilient and explore culturally-adapted varieties capable of withstanding such extreme weather events. The Po Delta region has long been rich in agricultural production, with rice and soy being among its key crops.

However, many of these traditional crops demand excessive water, particularly during periods of intense drought and when the sea encroaches into the riverbed, rendering them economically unsustainable. 

Amidst these challenges, the Nature Restoration Law, approved by Parliament in June, offers a glimmer of hope, with amendments to the law aiming to restore 20 per cent of degraded land and marine areas by 2030. The PNRR project for the Po area focuses on renaturalisation efforts, including restoring the functionality of the Po River system, reactivating natural processes and promoting biodiversity recovery.

These efforts aim to ensure more efficient and sustainable water resource usage, including the re-establishment of certain natural river segments that were artificially modified in the past.

Solutions towards resilience

As locals look towards the future, some solutions remain outdated and await renewed funding. As engineer Giancarlo Mantovani explained: "We had already built anti-salt barriers designed and planned 40 years ago."

One such project on hold is Piano Laghetti, which involves the creation of water reserves to be used in times of need. While just over 200 feasible projects secured funding as of December, the grand vision is to establish 10,000 water reserves by 2030 - a move that will greatly increase the section of the network that serves both drainage and irrigation. Those who stand to benefit most from the initiative are fisherfolks.

Nestled at the remote end of the Po Delta along the Sacca degli Scardovari road, lives a community of approximately 1,400 individuals who rely on fishing as their livelihood. Among them is Caterina Mancin, who, alongside her husband, operates one of the fishing huts dotting the road.

Situated between the sea and the meandering river, the Sacca is home to numerous mussel drums. Caterina's hut, being closest to the sea, bears the brunt of the challenges brought by tropicalisation, escalating temperatures and the transforming marine ecosystem. "We are invisible," she lamented.

The once-familiar fishing grounds have transformed into a hospitable environment for alien species like the blue crab and a microscopic alga that suffocate the mollusks.

"These phenomena make fishing with traditional nets impossible," explained Antonio Gottardo, president of Legacoop, an association representing 15,000 Italian cooperatives. 

The warming winters pose a growing concern, and the challenges are compounded by inadequate financial support from the Italian government and slow progress in infrastructure modernisation. As a result, the rapid changes in the environment become even more debilitating. The existing abyssal barriers, once effective on the river branches, are now rendered useless due to the altered hydraulic conditions caused by these changes. "What we are doing is becoming resilient, that is, adapting to change," Gottardo further stated.

The need to plan for the future in the face of climate collapse requires more than reformism and adaptation, the experts point out; it demands drastic transformation, acknowledging that the crisis is at our doorstep. 

Recognising the urgency, organisations like Legambiente are implementing innovative solutions to combat extreme weather events: "Ambitious climate policies, along with three concrete actions, are necessary: a climate adaptation plan and resources to implement it, updating PNIEC by June, and legislation against land consumption - actions on which Italy lags and needs to accelerate."

Meanwhile on the European stage, the NGO marked the necessity of a Climate Solidarity Pact. "In this game, it's crucial to include the phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies by 2030 to accelerate the transition to renewables and energy efficiency," Legambiente adds. "Moreover, we need to accelerate the decarbonisation of transportation; electric mobility can and must make a difference."

"We are not yet politically and action-wise ready, even though we've been witnessing these changes for years," Ramona Magno concluded. "We still tend to react when the phenomena occur and the damages have already been done. But slowly, we need to shift towards a different approach: trying to prevent or at least reduce risks, whether it's dealing with droughts or handling stronger extreme events.

"We must move in parallel, not just seeking solutions when water is scarce, but also preparing for reducing damages during heavy rainfall."

Image by Fabio Santaniello Bruun

Article written by:
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Vittoria Torsello
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The climate instability in the small Po Delta region is exacerbating vulnerability among farmers.
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Italy is emerging as one of the European countries most severely affected by extreme climate events in 2023, according to data compiled by Osservatorio Città Climaconfirmed.