Drought, the paradox of the water crisis in Italy

 by Alberto Ferrigolo

The interview of Alberto Ferrigolo for Agi with one of the leading experts in water and its environmental and climate problems, Erasmo D'Angelis, former undersecretary of the Letta Government with responsibility also for dams and water infrastructures, creator and coordinator of Italiasicura

Dr. D'Angelis, what is the sensational novelty of this drought?

"That has hit the North, in the South - we know - is endemic, we have been dealing with it for years, but the North is in conditions never seen before. This is a strong wake-up call. That is why the PNRR must finance the Network of networks, which are waterways. It is all very well to finance road, motorway, rail and digital networks, but the water network is essential, vital. We remained in the nineteenth century, to those works there, the Cavour Canal, but now we have to start a new construction site of works as was done at the end of that century and in the 50s and 60s of the post-war period. It's a huge job, but it has to be done."

Mario Tozzi, environmentalist and scientific popularizer of TV, called it "an encyclopedia of water, with answers to every question that may come to mind" and also as "a history book, which starts from mythology, but is also a treatise on hydrology and hydrography, a handbook, but also a stimulating reading that opens up uncommon observation points",  as noted in the introduction.

We are talking about "Acque d'Italia" (Giunti Editore, € 7.50) written by Erasmo D'Angelis among the leading experts in water and its environmental and climate problems, a long commitment of ecologist and environmental journalist, former president of Publiacqua, the aqueduct and purification company of central Tuscany, president of the Environment Commission of the Regional Council of Tuscany, undersecretary of the Letta Government with responsibility also for dams and water infrastructures,  creator and coordinator of Italiasicura, the mission structure of Palazzo Chigi for the fight against hydrogeological instability and the development of water infrastructure, today in the role of Secretary General of the Central Italy Basin Authority.

His book comes out in the most critical phase of the water supply of our country, with the Po dry and a rationing risk very close, and at Agi he says in this interview: "We are a paradoxical country, because we are the country richest in water in Europe and this is a puzzle week thing. Unbelievable, but it's true."

But talking about water today in Italy is like talking about rope in the house of the hanged, referring to the drought emergency.

"Yet we have a high rainfall, also because two-thirds of Italy is made up of hills and mountains and it rains a lot on the hills. We do not realize it, because we all live in the plains, but we have average rainfall a year for 302 billion cubic meters. A comparison? In Rome it rains every year on average about 800 millimeters of rain, in London 760 and yet, in the imagination, England is the country of rains like Germany, France. We have more rainfall, more waterways than any other European country: we have 7,596, of which 1,242 are rivers. But all our waterways, most of which are dry today, some are even dust, have – the only European country of this size – a torrential character, not fluvial as are the great European rivers, which are over a thousand kilometers long, wide that look like huge lakes. But in Italy if there is rain they have water, if there is not they go dry immediately. In fact, we risk floods precisely because suddenly they can't absorb the water".

A condition that, however, is both a paradox and a contradiction.

"That's right. But the paradox is that we are rich in water, we have 342 lakes, but we are very poor in water infrastructure. The great Italian investments in water schemes have stopped in the 60s since the twentieth century. And from then on, thirty years later, the State effectively eliminated from public funds all resources for the public good and with the Galli law of 1996 delegated everything to the resources of the tariff for drinking water and neither dams nor reservoirs were built anymore".

What is the result?

"We have 526 large dams plus about 20,000 small reservoirs. Today we store more or less 11.3% of rainwater in these containers. Fifty years ago about 15% of it was stored, because in the meantime there is no maintenance, no smudging – sediments gradually accumulate and space for water is reduced – the result is that we have these large dams that are not cleaned up so they can store less and less water".

So, the water is there, in abundance, we do not know how to hold it but where does it end?

"We waste an unspeakable amount of it. After 100 water withdrawals, but we know almost everything only about a segment of 20%, which is then the water that arrives at the tap. And it is the only water controlled by an authority, which is Arera, the Energy, Gas, Water Control Authority that controls water companies. And we know that in the 600 thousand km of Italian water network we lose 42% of water on the road. A scandal, the highest percentage ever existed."

But of the 80% of water that remains, what do we know instead?

"That's the point. On that 80% there is no authority of control, of regulation. About 51% is used in agriculture, where at least half of it is wasted with sprinkler irrigation, and then there is a 25% of water taken for industrial uses. We are the only European country that with drinking water washes us the yards, the vehicles, cools the production plants, when it could be done with the reuse of sewage water, recycling. We have excellent purifiers from which more or less 9 billion cubic meters of water come out every year, even of great quality, treated, purified, and we throw it back into the sea ...".

Like at sea?

"We are the only European country that does not reuse sewage water. And since June of next year, Europe has been sanctioning us for this reason too. We have a crazy delay in the water infrastructure of the water that goes to the tap because with the Galli law everything is delegated to the bill and having us the lowest bill in Europe, it is not that with the proceeds you can make great repairs, replacements, they are expensive. Water is no longer in the budgets of the Municipalities, of the Regions. The conclusion of this paradoxical state is the PNRR: out of almost 200 billion water has 1, 2% of the resources. An indecent thing."

More than a water crisis due to lack of water, it is an infrastructure crisis.

"Of course, it's a storage and distribution issue. Today we are missing at least 2,000 small and medium reservoirs but there is the plan of the Reclamation Consortia that has 400 ready and designed only to be unlocked".

What prevents you from doing this?

"Funding. There is a lot of disinterest and removal of the water problem."

Even Dragons?

"This government too. All governments, no one excluded. We had two great droughts, in 2003 and 2017, but as happens in all things past the emergency we forget about it, we remove everything. After the great emotions come the great removals. Our disposition is this: to forget."

Who is worse off than us? The Sahel?

"The point is that we are only now getting the effects of the climate forecasts made twenty years ago, which told us of the permanent, early heat waves that have devastated the Mediterranean, African, Spanish, etc. belts: in the end they have arrived. Unfortunately, this crisis is the foreshadowing of what will happen in the next thirty years as climatologists explained to us yesterday".

Just yesterday the head of the Civil Protection, Fabrizio Curcio, was nothing short of apocalyptic.

"These are climate forecasts. Professor Renzo Rosso, a luminary of hydrology, even told us yesterday that this could be the coolest year of the next thirty. A demonstration that there is a huge problem and that it must be managed with a planning that can last years but that it is important to do immediately. It is like the other side of the floods, after the emergency no one thinks about securing the territory".

You complain that there has never been a G7 or A G20 on water. Will it ever be done?

"I hope so. But that in the meantime in Italy at least extraordinary sessions of Parliament are held to launch a Water Plan for the next thirty years, with adequate resources. Some things must be put in the pipeline immediately, immediately the 400 medium and small reservoirs throughout Italy, a set of technologies in agriculture for water saving, precision agriculture or 4.0 of Coldiretti, all things that save 70% of irrigation resources. You have to bring water to all coastal strips where the salt wedge  is penetrating for 15, 20 kilometers inland. The Piave, a river sacred to the homeland of the First World War, which suddenly overflowed blocking the road and swallowing the enemy who was crossing it, "the Piave murmured ...", for 13 km is salty. The sea advances. As the gentle coastal aquifers are reduced because they irrigate and empty, those are filled with the brackish water of the rising sea. Water must be brought there, otherwise those areas will become desertified. Already a 20% of the coastal strip is desertified and agriculture can no longer be practiced".

Italy is a candidate to be the country that would like to host the Tenth World Water Forum for 2024. Will he make it?

"No, but we have ticked off a world event on water and culture to do in 2023. The '24 Forum went to Indonesia, but we will almost certainly have it in 2027. But next year there will be this world event in Italy on the culture of water, we are still the center of attention".

A recommendation?

"To no longer waste even a drop of water, is the number 1 recommendation."

That is, pulling the water once out of four, washing less or, as Fulco Pratesi, honorary president of the WWF, says, changing your underwear every three, four days ...?

"No, no, let's wash, let's drink, because anyway we are not in a desert area. Hygiene is the first thing. As for Fulco, it does so even when there are torrential rains. It's his lifestyle. It has always had this shrewd approach to the use of natural resources. But they are extreme solutions. Let's not forget that Italy has all the forms of water on Planet Earth, from glaciers to waterfalls, swamps, rivers, lakes, ponds. Do we realize? No country is like ours, yet we are in this condition due to waste, lack of infrastructure, the poor use of technologies for savings and a plan for the reuse of adequate water".