Sustainable Italy: Is Italy Becoming A Dust Bowl?

With water now scarce on the peninsula, is Italy about to become a desert? We look at some solutions to the threat of the Italian dust bowl.

dust bowl
I Calanchi di Pisticci in Basilicata. Photo: NICOLA PAOLICELLI, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
Sustainable Italy is a column created in collaboration with Rethinking Climate. Rethinking Climate is a youth-led international cooperation nonprofit whose mission is to understand how best we can communicate, and therefore comprehend, the climate crisis and sustainability in its variety of topics. What is it about the way we are communicating climate issues that makes it so difficult to implement the solutions available?

In recent weeks, the regional authorities of Lombardy and Emilia Romagna have declared a state of emergency. As we recently covered at Italics, the north of Italy is simply not getting enough water — prompting the Governor of Veneto to declare a state of emergency already back in May.

We only need to see the images of the River Po to understand how dramatic the situation is. The river has more than 100 million fewer cubic meters of water in it than it should at this time of year. It’s no surprise why: the first half of 2022 has been Italy’s hottest on record, at 0.76% over the mean. However, it has also been the driest, with a massive 45% decrease in precipitation.

Experts are rightly worried. The viability of agriculture in the Padana is under threat, while the possibility of hydropower — that provides renewable electricity to half of Italy — remains a question.

However, there is no suggestion that this is a problem just for 2022. Rather, experts now speak of the desertification of Italy — a process in which fertile land turns to desert and dust. As much as 28% of Italy’s land is at risk.

We were told

There’s no doubt that desertification would pose a long-term threat to Italy’s way of life. Yet, people have been warning about it for decades. Sicily, Puglia, and Sardinia, for example, have long been recognized as highly vulnerable to desertification — and they may even be in the initial phases of the processes, despite once being areas where water was easily available.

The climate is not the only factor that has an impact in the process: salinization, water erosion, urbanization, pollution, and agricultural techniques all contribute. But it is the climate crisis that is making Italy’s transformation into desert happen faster and faster.

With a 40% decrease in precipitation in the north of Italy, and an anticipated 80% reduction in snow in the winter ahead, the water crisis will only become more acute. And, at risk of painting too grim a picture, the increased heat will cause larger fires that will damage the one protection we have against desertification: our trees and vegetation.

In the long term, the impacts are predictable: less agriculture, less water availability, and therefore spiraling costs of both. Social discontent is almost inevitable.

Unfortunately, this isn’t happening in the distant future. Some predict that we may not even survive to September unless we ration the water we have available.

Preventing an Italian dust bowl

We don’t need experts to explain that it is necessary to avoid the dust bowlification of Italy’s land — a point of no return where soil becomes dust and nothing can grow from it. However, we do need urgent action and on how to avoid getting there.

This has to start with changes to the way we use water. We need politicians to implement policies to strengthen the water infrastructure network to reduce waste, while investing in desalinization plants. While experts warn that we cannot rely on these plants, they have to remain an option during emergencies. Farmers too will have to work more efficiently with water and contribute to the protection of their lands.

Meanwhile, the Italian Center for River Requalification also warned that it’s necessary to measure how much, and in which way, water is managed in order to avoid wasting any. In addition, the Center recommends looking at more natural water containers to improve the current water management infrastructure in collaboration with the agricultural sector, for instance, to nurture more water-absorbent soil.

Considering that land restoration and management, as underlined by the UNCCC’s 2022 Global Report Outlook Report is a shared responsibility, just as is our consumption, it is fundamental we find solutions to desertification in view of the environmental, social, and economic impacts it could have.

But beyond state-led strategies to reduce water consumption, the way that we live may have to change. Luckily, there are communities we can learn from already.

For example, the ecovillage of Montale, near Modena, is an innovative space with various buildings that use renewable energy and energy-saving measures, while engaging in the protection and maintenance of surrounding green areas and recollecting and reusing disposed water. The ecovillage has been provided as an example of a short-term solution to reduce water and energy consumption already compliant with the EU norms towards Nearly Zero Energy Building (NZEB).

This ecovillage is a small (literal due to its size) example that can help us at least figure out as citizens how we could build more environmentally sustainable spaces reducing emissions and water and energy consumption. Hence, demonstrating also that we can still live based on certain standards, but by paying attention to certain matters, such as how we build or reconstruct homes.

Future steps

However, the directives and resolutions implemented focus on recognizing those vulnerable areas affected by desertification, measuring their status, and implementing water-saving solutions, they focus on adaptation rather than mitigation for short-term solutions.

The impact of the war in Ukraine drastically increased our attention to the measures needed to improve Italy’s environmental sustainability not only because of the economic damages but because if we do not support strong, radical and innovative, and immediate solutions there might be environmental changes that will cause more damage than that which we can promptly handle. Desertification is an example affecting not only serious fires but our access to water and food.

We have seen the consequences already in Italy of what desertification means, therefore it is absolutely crucial that at a local and national level faster and stronger long and short-term actions are implemented.

Of course, there is still some denial and delay — and there always will be. Last week during an Italian political talk show, a renowned climatologist left the studio after a self-proclaimed ‘non-expert’ journalist claimed that data provided by the IPCC scientists should be debated. Among the dust of Italy, we’re still failing to live up to the great damage that our own actions are causing.