Worst drought in 70 years threatens northern Italy's food, power

The dessicated bed of the river Po in Boretto, northeast of Parma, on June 15, 2022. PHOTO: AFP
A large 55-meter barge that was sunk in 1944 re-emerged due to severe drought from the River Po in Italy on June 15, 2022. PHOTO: AFP
The Tevere river at the Isola Tiberina at risk of dryness during the drought in Rome on June 16, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

ROME (BLOOMBERG) - Italy is in the depths of one of its worst droughts, with the country's largest river, the Po, hitting its lowest level in 70 years, threatening crops and raising the spectre of power outages.

While much of Europe has had drier-than-average conditions this year, northern Italy's Po valley is the worst hit, according to the JRC Global Drought Observatory.

Several months without rains and an earlier-than-usual halt in flows from melting snow in the western Alps have made large swaths of the river bed visible - so much so that a German tank from World War II resurfaced recently.

With water sources depleting, Italian hydroelectric reservoir levels are at historic lows. The production of hydroelectric power, which usually supplies 15 per cent of the country's needs, is down 50 per cent so far this year from 2021.

Compounding the region's woes, the Adriatic sea has entered into the Po delta for at least 10km, threatening farm lands and raising the risk of salty water in taps.

Northern Italian towns are rationing water and supplying it in trucks, as they face a potential drinking-water shortage.

The drought may bring significant economic pain. The Po river, which flows from west to east in northern Italy, is a lifeline for such major industrial centres as Milan and Turin - home to the maker of Fiat cars and steel pipes manufacturer Tenaris.

Lombardy and Piedmont, the regions where the cities sit, are also big agricultural producers, accounting for 93 per cent of Italy's rice production. With water availability more than halving in east Piedmont, this year's crop is under threat, local farmers say.

"The situation is dramatic for some crops," said Mr Ercole Zuccaro, director of Piedmont's farm-industry association Confagricoltura. "Climate change is obvious here. Long periods of drought are interrupted by severe weather."

The association estimates forage, barley and grain crops will be down 30 per cent to 40 per cent this year, with repercussions for livestock, which will have to be slaughtered for meat earlier than expected.

It will aggravate the surge in food prices for consumers and in production costs for farmers.

Production of hazelnuts and wine could be affected too, Mr Zuccaro said.

A farmer works with a water pump to irrigate his maize field near the Po river in Italy on June 17, 2022. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Piedmont is Italy's largest producer of hazelnuts. Grape harvesting will probably be lower than usual, he said.

The heat waves in Europe and the US are being monitored closely after global grain supplies suffered from erratic weather worldwide and as Russia's invasion of Ukraine choked shipments from one of the world's top exporters.

Spain recorded unusual temperatures for June of over 40 deg C for the second time in a month.

Over a quarter of Italy's territory in the south and the north is currently at risk of desertification after months with barely any rainfall, according to the national farmers' association, Coldiretti.

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