« We are in an extreme crisis. » Italian parmesan producers fear for the future as the level of the Po falls

The “great river”, as it is called, plays an essential role in the country’s history. Before bridges were built, its deep waters protected civilizations on either side from invaders who could not cross.

Later, cities and industries sprang up on its shores and used the water for hydroelectricity, transportation, and irrigation. Along some sections of the Po River, treatment plants turn the muddy river into drinking water.

The Po is fed by winter snow in the Alps and heavy spring rains which often lead to devastating floods. In a cafe near the banks of the river, near the city of Mantua, a measuring stick on the wall indicates the height of the water. In 1951, he almost hit the roof.

But in 2022, things are very different. An unusually dry winter brought rare snowmelt and sporadic spring rains, leading to the worst drought in northern Italian regions for more than 70 years, a Po regional agency has confirmed.

As a result, the Po is reaching record water levels, according to the European Space Agency. An animation from the agency’s Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite mission reveals how the river has « narrowed considerably » between June 2020 and June 2022.

And this is a big problem for the millions of people who depend on the Po for their livelihood. The salinization of the Adriatic Sea has begun to turn its fresh water into unusable poison for crops. Recent samples show salt water more than 20 kilometers (12 miles) inland, and as the river drops lower the sea will continue to fill the void.

Massimiliano Fazzini, head of the climate risk department of the Italian Society for Environmental Geology, explains that during the current hydrological year, which began on December 1, the Po basin has a water deficit d around 45% to 70% in some areas.

« I’m usually never pessimistic or alarmist, but this time we have to be alarmist, » he told CNN, citing the 7.5-meter (24.6-foot) average snowfall difference over the years. normals at 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) this year. coupled with rising temperatures that means reservoirs that might be accessible in a drought year are not at full capacity. « The situation is critical and can only get worse, » he said.

At Simone Minelli’s dairy farm along the river banks near Mantua, the outlook is bleak. Water is an essential part of the operation to feed his herd of 300 Friesian cattle, he told CNN.

His dairy cows produce 30 liters (6.6 gallons) of milk a day which is processed into the authentic Parmigiano Reggiano Parmesan cheese from this region. If his cows aren’t each drinking between 100 and 150 liters (22 to 33 gallons) of water a day or are overheated, the milk won’t meet the rigid standards and the cheese won’t receive the coveted seal of approval. .

But a bigger concern than the water in their waterers is what they will eat. Minelli mainly uses water from the Po for crop irrigation to feed his livestock. He showed CNN a field of soybeans that has not been irrigated and is suffering from small, withered plants that do not feed his livestock.

He worries about restrictions on water as he watches the Po level drop even further – and where he might even buy food if other farmers suffer in the same way. « I’m very worried, we’re taking it day by day, » he said. « If you don’t have enough feed to feed your cattle, you have to cut back, » he said, referring to the number of cows in his herd.

Simone Minelli worries about how he will feed his herd of 300 Friesian cows.

In the neighboring Parmigiano Reggiano consortium, its milk is blended with that of 20 other dairy producers to produce 52,000 wheels of the coveted cheese each year. If the milk dries up, the cheese will not be made.

Further upstream, Ada Giorgi showed CNN the pumping station operated by the consortium she has chaired for 20 years. The consortium had to pay to remove sand from the riverbed so the pumps wouldn’t clog, she said, and added a meter (3.3ft) of pipe to lower the pumps even further if the water level continues to drop. Water from the pumping station feeds a maze of canals leading to irrigation centers and treatment plants.

The consortium’s 150,000 customers are still getting water, but as Giorgi looks at the level of the Po, she says she’s worried about the future. « The last time the river was low was in 2003, » she told CNN. « This time it’s much worse. There’s a lack of rain, no snow and high temperatures, » she said. « It creates the famous perfect storm. We are in an extreme crisis. »

The production of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is observed at a site near Mantua.
If it doesn’t rain – and no significant rain is expected in the near future – things will only get worse. In the city of Milan, Italy’s financial hub, the mayor has ordered all ornamental fountains to stop and banned the washing of private vehicles or the watering of gardens and lawns.

In the small town of Castenaso, near Bologna, hairdressers and barbers are reportedly banned from washing customers’ hair twice in an attempt to save water before supplies run too low.

Meanwhile, a grueling heatwave has gripped much of southern Italy since May.

A woman stands on the bed of the Po River next to the Ponte della Becca (Becca Bridge) in Linarolo, near Pavia, Italy, June 27, 2022.
Scientists call the Mediterranean region a hotspot of the climate crisis. The man-made crisis has made heat waves here more frequent and intense, and has led to less rainfall in the summer. Temperatures are expected to be between 20% and 50% warmer than the global average, and droughts here will worsen by mid-century, even as the world reduces its greenhouse gas emissions. If emissions continue at very high levels, droughts and fires will become so severe that it will be difficult to continue farming. Tourism will also become less attractive.

Italy is a net food exporter, supplying products such as wheat to many developing countries. A drought here only exacerbates a food crisis that is sorely felt in the world’s poorest regions. And the Po river has an outsized importance for the Italians.

Author Tobias Jones, whose book « The Po – An Elegy for Italy’s Longest River » traces the river’s history, followed the entire length of the river to grasp its significance. He says that the Po is to Italy what the Thames is to London or the Mississippi is to the United States.

“For centuries there was concern about the flooding of the river, but climate change has meant that the river is now at risk of drying up,” he told CNN.

« It’s not just a river, it’s part of the national psyche. The towns that border it attract tourism and industry. It was almost a moat for central Italy that protected it from the invaders. Now it is threatened and no one knows what to do to save it. »

CNN’s Angela Dewan and Chad Myers contributed to this report.

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