Severe droughts, which are a direct consequence of climate change, are affecting countries worldwide – from Africa to North America – bringing huge economic losses, degrading entire ecosystems, and threatening human and animal life. Due to record-breaking high temperatures and a long-lasting absence of precipitation, the longest river in Italy and one of its most important resources is now drying up. We explore how the historic low water levels of River Po are affecting the country’s agriculture and compromising its renewable energy production.

As the effects of climate change rapidly intensify, record-breaking heatwaves are becoming a regular occurrence globally. According to a recent UN report, an estimated 55 million people globally are directly affected by droughts every year, making it the most serious hazard to livestock and crops in nearly every part of the world. Within the next few decades – the report continues – 129 countries will experience an increase in drought exposure mainly due to climate change alone and by 2050, between 4.8 and 5.7 billion people will live in areas that are water-scarce for at least one month each year, up from 3.6 billion today.

The situation, however, is already critical. Several countries around the world are currently experiencing extreme heat, including India, which has experienced temperatures reaching 50C for several consecutive days in April 2022. The situation there is so dire that the government has been forced to halt wheat exports to Europe and the US and ramp up coal production to meet its skyrocketing energy demand.

Across the world in Italy, it is also currently facing a historic drought. Often hit by African heatwaves in the summer months, this year the country has been taken by surprise by its unexpected high temperatures and lack of precipitation during the first months of 2022. This has placed a heavy toll on Italy’s longest and most important river, Po, and is currently facing a severe drought. While water levels usually decrease considerably during summer months, this year it dried up much earlier than expected. As a result, Northern Italy, a climate-vulnerable area, has been dealing with monumental water shortages since March 2022, an extremely ‘worrisome’ trend with potentially catastrophic repercussions on the local and national economies, warns WWF

The River Po Is Drying Up 

River Po stretches 652 kilometres (405 miles) from the Cottian Alps all the way to the Adriatic Sea near Venice, crossing several important cities in Northern Italy including Turin and Piacenza. The vast valley around it – called the Po Basin or Po Valley (Italian Pianura Padana) – is the main industrial and agricultural area of the country, home to nearly one-third of the total population. The moist and extremely fertile floodplain is reserved for cereal crops such as wheat, barley, and – surprisingly for Europe – rice, a crop that requires heavy irrigation. Hydroelectric stations supply most electricity to surrounding urban areas but the river’s water is also used as coolant in coal and oil power stations as well. 

Since December 2021, the Po Basin and surrounding regions have experienced a temperature anomaly of +2.1C as well as a persistent lack of rain, with a precipitation deficit of 65% compared to the 1991-2020 average and more than 100 consecutive dry days. The Northern-central region of Lombardy – home to about 10 million people located mostly in the metropolitan area of Milan and producing over a fifth of the Italian gross domestic product – has seen only 65 millimetres of rain falling over the same period with temperatures higher than the spring average. Moreover, during the last winter season, mountainous areas in the Alps, where the source of the River Po is located, have seen the lowest levels of snowfall in over 20 years, nearly 50% lower than the average. 

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What Does The Drought Mean for Agriculture and the Local Economy?

The drought affecting the longest river in Italy has a direct impact on the crops of rice, corn, and soy as well as wheat and other cereals destined to feed livestock. The country, already critically impacted by the wheat and energy shortage triggered by the Ukraine conflict, is now losing its own food supplies and dealing with power shortages. 

Despite being extremely fertile, the wheat grown in the Po Basin represents only 36% of the total amount the country needs to produce bread and other bakery products, a staple of Italian cuisine, forcing the country to rely on foreign imports. If the dry season persists, the drastic reduction in yields could potentially further increase the country’s foreign dependency.

But local agriculture is not the only sector paying a high price for the current drought. The water shortage is heavily impacting hydropower energy generation, with reservoirs storing water from the River Po destined to be used in hydroelectric plants dropping below the minimum historical values since September 2021. The country is in desperate need of rainfall. This, experts argue, is the only way to avoid the water shortage from further exacerbating its power market. Indeed, Italy is already experiencing record-breaking wholesale prices and throughout 2021, it saw electricity costs grow by more than 270% due to a rise in natural gas and coal prices and a drop in wind power generation due to low wind speeds.