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Record Drought & Heartbreak: Italy's Farmers Reap The Damages Of Climate Change

A horse in a dry pasture in Sicily, in August

Coldiretti Sicilia Facebook page
Niccolò Zancan

CERVERE — It hasn't rained in two months. The corn has not grown. Six out of ten hectares of this plain field are completely parched. "It's late now," says Giovanni Bedino, running his dark fingers through the dry leaves of the corn. The farmer, now 59, has been working the land since he was 15.

"Since the day my father passed away, I have done nothing else," he says. "I love this job, but a year like this takes away your love and leaves you sad. The corn died, it was born small and it remained small, stuck, without water and not even a bit of humidity. We couldn't water the fields and nothing came down from the sky. I remember, the summer of 2003 was a very difficult one — but it wasn't even close to this year. I have never seen such a drought."

The Italian northwest is as arid as it gets. The earth is cracking, the crops and the animals suffer. In the middle of the Gesso stream, in the Piedmont region, a woman is bathing with her daughter. "It's fiercely hot," she says. The women and men who have tried, in vain, "to look after the water" also suffer. So says Giovanni Bedino: "We take care of it. We take care of water because we know how precious it is. We take shifts to water the plants. We try not to waste a single drop."

But Bedino says this irrigation canal should have a flow rate between 70 and 90 centimeters in August; yesterday it was 10, today 9. He says, "The water is running out. There isn't enough for everyone."

This is the summer in which the news about climate change matches with reality on the ground.

The flow figures of the local waterways are chilling. Varaita Torrent: -56%. Stura di Demonte: -45%. The Tanaro River, measured at the Farigliano station: -34%. The country has been ravaged by fires and storms, like Greece, Turkey and much of southern Europe. Italy has recorded 1,200 "extreme" meteorological events — a 56% increase from last year. Wildfires ravaged the southern regions of Sardinia, Calabria and Sicily. The town of Floridia, in Sicily, is thought to have recorded the hottest temperature ever recorded in Europe: 48.8 °C. Meanwhile, heavy rainfall devastated other parts of the country. Coldiretti, Italy's largest agricultural association, has just summed up the bill for this Italian summer: The damages to agriculture, it says, amount to €1 billion. Wheat yields have fallen 10%; cherries 30%, nectarines 40%. Tomato and corn crops have also suffered heavy losses.

Like much of Italy, Piedmont is going through the most difficult summer for its agriculture. In Val Maira, at 1,900 meters above sea level at the foot of the Alps, the meadows have turned a dry yellow. The pastures are scorched and the herdsmen are coming down from the mountains earlier than usual because there is no more food for their flocks. The same has happened to the other neighboring valleys.

This is the summer in which the news about climate change matches with reality on the ground. In northern Italy, the area that's bearing the brunt of the crisis is Cuneo province, near the French border.

Livio Quaranta, the president of the consortium that manages water in 108 municipalities, says the situation is very worrying indeed.

"Here's what we see: There are now no permanent snowfields on this entire stretch of the Alps," says Quaranta. "The snow cover has changed: It doesn't remain on the ground for long — it just washes away, because of higher average temperatures."

Quaranta says the weather has depleted the region's water reserves: "There is no water reserve in winter and no rain in summer ... perhaps the odd localized hail storm, then weeks of nothing. It affects agriculture and tourism."

Local authorities prohibited wasting water, which Quaranta says is "necessary." In an attempt to spare every drop and try to save the corn and the last plums, pears and apples, 10 municipalities in the area have temporarily banned filling private swimming pools, washing cars and using drinking water for gardens.

Dry stream in northern Italy — Photo: Informazione Libera Facebook page

Elisabetta Cagliero and her husband run a sports center nearby, where one of the main attractions is rafting. Normally, they put eight people onboard the rafts — now it's five at most: The river level is so low, they've had to reduce the weight.

"Apart from a drizzle in early August, it's been dry," says Cagliero. "The meadows are yellow, it breaks my heart to see them like that. When the reservoirs in the area are emptied to serve the local power plant, the river becomes even smaller and the rafts come back completely muddy."

The sliding irrigation system is not enough, and neither is the shifts system: There simply is no water.

One of the first to sound the alarm, back when the situation was not yet so serious, was Giorgio Bergesio, president of a local irrigation board.

"Climate change is affecting our agriculture dramatically," he says. "We need planning policies to build reservoirs, the only way we have to save water. If this continues, within five years we will be hit by a drought that will make it impossible to produce many crops."

Roberto Moncalvo of Coldiretti, the agriculture association, says it's been a particularly complicated year and they continue to receive worrying reports from farmers.

"The corn and fruit were ripening just now, so there will be heavy losses," he says. "All of this is evidence of climate change taking place: very heavy rainfall, but for a very short time, followed by long periods of drought. We need safe and sustainable reservoirs, new energy policies. We must now think about the changes necessary to safeguard our agriculture of the future."

What is happening in Piedmont has played out in other Italian regions in the last few years. Just three years ago, the northeastern region of Veneto went through a similar crisis. No one knows who will be next. These are peaks and falls of the same movement, pieces of the same story.

"How can we take better care of the water?" asks farmer Giovanni Bedino. Around him, in the area between Cervere and Cherasco, the earth is parched. The sliding irrigation system is not enough, and neither is the shifts system: There simply is no water. "One solution would be to store it in the winter and use it in the summer," he says, looking at his plants. " This corn should be green and lush, and instead it's dying."

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