‘We’re worried it’s gone’: An alarm goes off over the drought-stricken Po River in Italy | Italia

WWhen amateur photographer Alessio Bonin had a few hours to go one afternoon in late March, he decided to venture into a nature reserve in Gualtieri, an Italian town on the banks of the Po River in Emilia-Romagna.

The drought that has plagued the country’s longest waterway since one of the driest winters has shown no signs of abating.

The 450-mile (650 km) Po flows from the Alps in the northwest, feeding many Italian regions before entering the Adriatic. But unusually low water levels around it, affecting everything from tomato and melon production to hydropower, drinking water, commercial shipping and fishing.

It was the stunning photo, taken by a Bunin drone, of a 50-meter cargo boat sunk during World War II emerging from its watery grave that brought home the seriousness of drought for those living in Gualtieri and nearby towns along the river.

Photo taken by Alessio Bonin using a drone-mounted camera of a sunken cargo boat that has resurfaced from Po.
Photo taken by Alessio Bonin using a drone-mounted camera of a sunken cargo boat that has resurfaced from Po. Photography: Alessio Bonin
A cargo boat sank during World War II in the Po River.
Another view of the cargo boat. Photography: Alessio Bonin

“In recent years you could see the bow of the boat, so we knew it was there, but seeing the ship exposed in March, when it was basically still winter, was very exciting,” Bunin said. “I’ve never experienced such a drought this time of year – our main concern was our river flooding, and now we’re worried it’s gone.”

Other traces have also returned, including a German tank found near Mantua and the remains of an ancient small village in Piedmont, amid what the Italian River Observatory said last week was the worst drought to affect the Po Valley in 70 years.

The drought was caused by higher-than-normal temperatures, less precipitation and much less snow during the winter, particularly in the Southern Alps, which in turn contributed to the lower snowmelt flow in the Po River.

The situation is so acute that the leaders of Lombardy, Piedmont, Veneto and Emilia-Romagna said on Thursday that they would ask for a state of emergency to be declared in their regions. Some northern towns require trucking of water supplies, calls have been made to 125 towns to ration supplies of drinking water to restore tank levels.

The river is currently 2.7 meters below zero depth, which is well below the average for June, while its rate of flow into the sea has slowed to 300 cubic meters per second – a fifth of the average for this time of year.

The Po Valley experienced droughts in 2007, 2012 and 2017, and scientists say their increasing prevalence is another indication of the climate crisis.

“This drought is unique in history due to a combination of two anomalies – a lack of rain, as well as an increase in temperature, which is directly related to climate change,” said Luca Mercalli, president of the Italian Meteorological Society.

dry river Po
The drought affecting the Po River is the worst in the region in decades. Photo: Piero Crocetti/AFP/Getty

Mercalli, who lives in the mountain town of Piedmont, added: “It’s as if it’s the end of July in the Alps, the water is running out with very little snow left, and there will be no more reserves in a week. We recently measured the snow level at 3,000 altitudes. meters – usually in June there are 2 meters but this year not only there is no snow but the flowers are already blooming.

“It will only get worse as the next few months are expected to be hot and dry.”

The Po Valley is an important economic region of Italy, allowing industrial centers such as Turin, Milan and Brescia, together with a variety of sectors, to flourish, and is one of the most important agricultural regions in Europe.

Gualtieri is a closely related example of how the small communities that surround a river depend on it. The nature reserve in which the submerged cargo ship appeared, built in Venice and used to transport grain between the Atlantic Ocean and Cremona in Lombardy, was the same area where Italian soldiers who had survived German concentration camps created timber jobs on their return home, and hence came to be known Later as Isola Degli Internati (Island of Prisoners).

Thirsty land under a bridge over the Po River in Burrito.
Thirsty land under a bridge over the Po River in Burrito. Photo: Luca Bruno / AP

“Our veterans needed work and this area was rich in willow trees,” said Renzo Bergamini, Mayor of Gualtieri. “They were used to build the infrastructure to protect the banks of the river.”

Bergamini was born in Gualtieri and said that climatic events over the past decade have become more severe.

“If before we used to get steady rainfall over 10 months, in recent years it has come in two or three heavy bursts over a shorter period of time, turning the river into a torrent,” he said.

“Today we are concerned about the water shortage, which serves not only farmers for irrigation but energy production and human nutrition – in this region we extract drinking water from alpine aquifers but in some areas it is also extracted from Po and purified.”

In Burrito, along the Po River, a man who usually swims across the river every day managed to walk to his middle last week.

“He’s known as the Po god,” said Jennifer Bache, president of River Passion, a company that organizes boat trips and fishing trips, as she sails along the Po River.

You used to see a lot of ships in this stretch, both for freight and passengers. Now you see, it’s just us, we’re on a completely empty water highway.”

She said there was a high rate of holiday cancellations among fishermen due to low water levels. “It’s worrying, a burrito really depends on fishing tourism.”

Luca Cruz, commercial shipping manager for Aipo’s Burrito Unit, an agency that provides engineering and environmental services to Po, including taking daily measurements, said navigation for cargo ships in the area should be suspended due to the drought. “The water is not deep enough.”