Why the Po is drying up (and what the consequences will be)

Why the Po is drying up (and what the consequences will be)

The Po languishes: long hit by water shortages aggravated by climate change, on 8 March it received the most worrying bulletin of the last thirty years.

"Today the hydrometric records of the levels of the flows of the Great River have reached the lowest levels since 1991"

It was published by the Po River District Basin Authority (Adbpo), the body in charge of protecting the existence of the largest Italian river. A truly dramatic figure, because if since 2003 the drought that hit the water wealth of the Po in the summer was strongly reported, this is the first time that the suffering of water is already evident at the beginning of spring. It is not only a huge ecosystem problem, but also an economic and social threat.

Italy has experienced a decade of extreme climatic events Read the article The watercourse that flows along 74 thousand kilometers, touching seven regions and over three thousand Italian municipalities, is the pulsating vein of a hydrographic basin that it is also "an economically strategic area for the country, with a GDP that covers 40% of the national one, by virtue of the presence of large industries, a considerable share of small and medium-sized enterprises, as well as agricultural and livestock activities" , as Adbpo itself explains in a report. The water crisis is even beginning to affect the availability of drinking water in Piedmont: one day it could affect the populations of other regions, such as Emilia Romagna. Everything happens due to the decrease in snow and rain compared to the seasonal average. And forecasts state that the drought will persist in the coming months, where the problems triggered by the lack of water supply in the spring season could have impacting effects on the environment, the economy and the population living in the Great River basin. So what are the reasons and what will be the consequences of the Po river drought?

Route of the river Po - Credits: Google Maps

Why the Po dries up: less snow and rain «In the last twenty years we have already suffered five water crises, therefore five moments of summer drought . It happened in the years 2003, 2006, 2007, 2012, 2017. This year, for the first time, we face a spring hydrogeological crisis, when we usually have water resources available in spring because it rains or snows precisely for the benefit. of the months in which we have to irrigate ». This was stated by Meuccio Berselli, general secretary of the Po River District Basin Authority, interviewed by sportsgaming.win on the subject. Why is there no water? Simple: there was not enough snow and, moreover, it rains less. In particular: snow throughout the Alps is close to minimums (-55% compared to seasonal averages), with peaks in some areas reaching -80%. The Copernicus detection system testified to this: the drought we are experiencing also arises from the poverty of snow in the Alps.

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And then the rains. In northern Italy it hasn't rained - as much as usual - in the last two months. To give a dimension, in Piedmont the rainfall occurring during the first months of the new year is 93% lower than the average. And the winds that lashed the Po Valley further dried the land. The water supply crisis does not involve only the Po, but also the tributaries and emissaries, which in the worst cases are currently reduced by up to 50%. And as a consequence of the scarcity of snow and rain, the great lakes and artificial reservoirs also suffer, real emergency valves to make up for the water shortages of the Great River. "The problem is that we are starting today from a situation with a gap in resources given by the ordinary snow cover of about 60%, and the indicated river flow is below the minimum of the historical average - continues Berselli - are two factors that they worry us: if the climate does not change and if we do not have rains that can guarantee that we can irrigate, in some areas we will run out of water ». The most serious situation is detected by the Piacenza section, where the water flow of the Po breaks through the historical lows of the last thirty years.

Credits: District Basin Authority of the River Po

Why the Po dries up: concessions and hydroelectricity “In recent decades we have increased the use of water from the Po. Twenty years ago, concessions existed for 1800 cubic meters per second compared to an average flow rate of the Po of 1400 cubic meters per second. Therefore, in some periods of water shortage, the basin could go completely haywire ”.

These are the words of Andrea Agapito Ludovici, water manager of WWF Italia, a scholar attentive to the fate of the Great River. According to him, too, the reason for the Po's water shortage lies in climate change and the resulting gap in snow and rain. But he adds that the use of river waters for strictly anthropogenic reasons should be reviewed, given the emergency: "Concessions must be renegotiated in relation to the actual capacity of the river. Because in the Alps there are large and small hydroelectric basins that hold water. Then there are the large lakes such as Garda, Como, Maggiore which must maintain a high water level for various reasons, including tourism. And then there is the large use of water in agriculture. This whole system should be revised due to the water deficit caused by the drought ».

On this last point Berselli disagrees: "The withdrawals are calibrated: agricultural irrigation has been renewed a lot and has become efficient. We also need the samples to prevent the saline wedge from winning and thus the Adriatic Sea from entering the river delta, transforming the groundwater from fresh water into brackish water ». The WWF delegate also agrees on the new efficiency of agricultural irrigation acquired in the last twenty years, «but this saving - he specifies - must also be translated into the revision of the concessions. That is, if I increase my efficiency by, for example, 20%, I must consequently and proportionally reduce the scope of the concession ».

The effects of drought on the Great River - Credits: Po River District Basin Authority

Another aspect concerns hydroelectricity. The "green" beautiful country is based on this type of energy: today this source represents 41% of the national energy extracted from renewable sources. It has been since the end of the 1800s that hydroelectric plants have been a consistent source of Italian electricity production. So much so that up to the 60s of the last century about 80% of Italian electricity needs were satisfied through the plants spread from the Apennines to the Alps. The problem that somehow concerns the supply of the Po, according to Agapito Ludovici, is linked to small alpine plants.

Renewables, here is the state of the municipalities in Italy Read the article "We should eliminate the incentives for hydroelectricity in natural waterways, especially in the Alps. They are small plants, hundreds in the Alps, many of these now abandoned. In any case, these installations of the so-called 'small hydroelectric' are not so efficient as to justify incentives ». Their negative impact is in interrupting the flow of river water. "One thing is the large plants in Valtellina which, for example, support energy for cities like Milan or in other centers in the Po Valley: the water dispersion originating from small plants is another thing". To eliminate the incentives, the WWF had started a collaboration with the previous Ministry of the Environment "but we have not been able to eliminate them in its entirety: there are very powerful lobbies that defend the interests of the energy companies that push so that they are not touched".

The ecological and economic consequences of drought There are many legends that circulate about the Great River. They generally concern mythological creatures: some positive such as the Unicorn or the Worbas, two mythical animals guarding the watercourse. Many more are the scary creatures that are said to populate the river banks: among these the most famous is the 'crocodile man', with webbed hands and feet and scaly skin. Even if some of these had ever existed, today they would be at high risk of extinction, like most of the original fauna and flora of the Po. In Piedmont, deaths of native fish, subjected to to considerable stress, and several plants show evident signs of difficulty. The head of the WWF explains:

“Amphibious and fish species are in serious crisis. Along the Langhe, for example, many of them have disappeared due to various variations that have changed the ecology of the environment ".

It is not only the fault of the lack of water, there are also too many invasive species. “Think of the torpedo, the most iconic alien species in the river that reaches almost 3 meters and eats almost everything. Where it passes, it leaves the desert. Or native species such as tench or pike, which need aquatic vegetation: they cannot reproduce and disappear. And at this juncture the changes in the hydraulic regime (drought or floods) are the basis of these phenomena ". As always, when a step is missing in the ecological chain, the problems are exponential: less water implies less aquatic flora which means less fauna. "And moreover, less water in the river means a greater presence of pollutants."

Diggers at work in the Po - Credits: Po River District Authority

From an economic point of view, the Po basin includes the beating hearts of national activities. According to data from an Adbpo report, about one third of Italian companies are located in the basin. The total number of employees is 46% of those employed in Italy, with a prevalent number of employees in the industrial (over 3 million) and tertiary (over 2.7 million) sectors. The agricultural production sector is highly developed, occupying the largest nucleus of cultivated land (3,400,000 hectares) of the national total, and covers 35% of national production. It is clear that any impact on the water supply of the Po, which serves - each in its own way - farms, livestock farms and industries in the area would have devastating effects on an economic level. So much so that Coldiretti began to report the emergency caused by the drought already at the end of last January. Also because the Po basin contributes to the supply of drinking water for 16 million people. Water intended as a source of life for human beings. And that she is not excluded from this analysis, as the Adbpo secretary general explains:

"Drinking water certainly becomes a very important problem. This difficulty already exists in the Piedmont area, but it could slowly spread towards the Romagna coast "

Berselli explains that the coast now exploits the Ridracoli dam, in the province of Forli-Cesena. If the dam empties because there are many people who have to use the water, the remedy is to use that of the Po through the Emilia-Romagna canal. "But if we don't have water and we don't have the flow available, we risk compromising the summer season in Romagna too".

Po Drought: the forecasts for the next months "Based on our forecasts, the most dramatic moment could be from June to next September ”

These are still the words of the secretary Berselli, which confirm a survey made on the issue by sportsgaming.win through the Copernicus system. "The data does not leave us calm because this drought could spread as it is doing from Piedmont towards the valley and then towards Piacenza and Lodi, up to the delta". The image below shows the areas at the highest risk of drought (yellow and especially orange) in the coming months. The Po originates from the northern side of Monviso: from some sources, the best known of which is that of Pian del Re. This is shown in the images on the net that have been running in recent weeks accompanied by small piles of snow and underground streams of water: a general sense of lack compared to normal. And as is evident from the following map extracted from the Copernicus system, the alpine area hosting the Cottian Alps - of which Monviso is the highest peak - will be among those that will suffer the most from drought in the coming months.

Credits: Copernicus

In 2016, some Cmcc researchers published a study on the climatic projections of the Po in the period 2021-2050 compared to the control period 1982-2011 (considering the IPCC scenarios RCP4.5 and RCP8.5 ). In general, the study states that in the future in the basin area temperatures will increase and rainfall will decrease, so that the Po river flows will decrease in summer, with more frequent and severe lean events, while they will increase in winter. If many are worried about the drought that the river basin is experiencing, it is precisely because we are now still in the winter period.

Po drought: the solutions on how to intervene It being understood that climate change cannot be limited but mitigated, and in any case it is an unstoppable phenomenon, we can and must intervene to preserve the Po basin. According to the Adbpo secretary Meuccio Berselli, it is necessary: ​​

Introduce less hydro-demanding crops to optimize their use for agricultural irrigation; Implement the wastewater from the purification, then reuse the water from the purifiers as much as possible; Making water transport networks more efficient, where dispersion remains a major problem; Investing in reservoirs and micro-reservoirs to stop the water and distribute it when needed;

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