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Home » Italy’s Drought – A Creeping Disaster

Italy’s Drought – A Creeping Disaster


Nick Breeze

Climate journalist and host of the ClimateGenn podcast.

In this ClimateGenn episode I am speaking with Hydrologist, Dr Francesco Avanzi, at the CIMA institute in Liguria Italy, about the worsening multiyear drought that Italy is experiencing.

[Film version & transcript below]

Italy is not alone. The Graz University of Technology recently analysed ground water data across Europe and concluded that Europe is lacking ground water “a lot” and has been in a state of severe drought since 2018.

Even in the UK, hydrologists are warning that rivers, where not polluted by sewage dumping, are at very low levels and that drought poses a massive risk to agriculture and drinking water. 

In France, the drought conditions are severely dire. President Macron recently stated that the era of water abundance has come to an end. Moves to address leakage and overuse from agriculture are now being undertaken.

In Spain, drought is not new but is experiencing extreme conditions in specific areas. Catalonia is one area where water sources are severely depleted and new laws have been enacted to restrict usage.

In Italy, a new super commissioner for water has been announced, to tackle the nationwide drought, posing a problem for agriculture, viticulture, as well as domestic supply.

Speaking about these drought conditions Dr Francesco Avanzi said,

Dr Francesco Avanzi

“Droughts are often called the creeping disaster because at the very beginning, you don’t realise that it’s coming up. And when you realise that it’s often too late. And in that the dynamic is somehow similar to how the COVID pandemic played out in the early months. That awareness came when somehow it was already too late.”

I was in Liguria, Italy last summer and the drought conditions were apparent. Fountains were switched off, seagulls parched, and rumours of tighter restrictions were circulating. Driving from Spain to France in December 2022, through the foothills of the Pyrenees, we were met with a bewildering spectacle of a dried out reservoir, the exposed barren mud flats and boating jetty, surreally extending into the dryness.

Europe is losing its ground water and this has profound implications for all of us. 

As Francesco says: “I think it’s important to realise that there are some aspects of global warming that are already around us and we should be concerned and try to find solutions to that.”

Dr Francesco Avanzi

“What we have seen in Italy, in Europe in particular, is a combination of some processes that are certainly already in the scenarios that we have been designing over the last few decades in terms of increasing temperature warmer conditions across alpine regions, in particular, this has translated into significant snow deficit.”

I spoke with Francesco in November 2022 and then again in January 2023, as the lack of snowpack, in the Alps and Apennines, signalled high risk of further drought in in the coming year.

Dr Francesco Avanzi

“We observed significantly warmer fall and early winter across the board in terms of the meteorological drought. So the rainfall deficit, we saw first partial recovery. But given these very warm temperatures there are reports that at the end of the year that said, we experienced at least a +1ºC more than usual over the course of 2022, which overall translated from my standpoint, in our very late start of the snow season, several weeks later than usual, there’s no pack build quite. And then a heatwave between December and January that we have about 1/3 of the snow that we are used to have, by this time of the year at national level, both in the Alps and in central Italy. So this is a significant difference from last year, the deficit is across the whole country, and is really driven by these high temperatures that we have seen over the course of the last few weeks.”

Nick Breeze

“Okay, you have just mentioned the whole country. But if we just take the Alps, for example, how does that deficit connect to something like the Po River Basin in terms of water supplies, as you look forward into 2023?”

Dr Francesco Avanzi

Well, on the one hand, it’s still a bit early, for example, there is some cold air coming starting from this week, hopefully, some more snowfall is in the forecast. So this step is set.  “At Alpine level right now we are about minus 60 minus 66%, in terms of the volume of water that we had in snow over the last 13 years. So a significant deficit, part of that could be filled with this more snow coming. But snow accumulation is a cumulative process. It starts in November, and it goes on, so the deficit that we had over the last few weeks is unlikely to be completely filled in January and February, which are not wet months, in general, in the country. Most of the precipitation comes in the fall, and in spring, not really in January, February, or March. So in terms of resources, again, on the one hand, it’s still early. But as we all know, the snow that we accumulate in the mountains, then is water that we use in spring and summer in the rivers. So if it is not filled up, then we will have yet another deficit like last year, especially in April and May when the bulk of snow melt goes downstream in the Po River and all the rivers that feed it.”

Nick Breeze

“So what you could say is this cumulative process is under a great deal of stress. And the as this progresses, you’re seeing less water feeding into the ground waters and into the Po Basin.”

Dr Francesco Avanzi

Absolutely. That’s a very important point, especially because the snow feed rivers but it is a slow process. So it is very efficient in infiltrating the soil, and from there to the groundwater. And so if we miss snow in the mountains, we also miss this connection to groundwater that then is used to cope with the drought periods in summer.”

Nick Breeze

“What I noticed was that you weren’t just talking about the Alps. You were also talking about the Appenines and the Marche and Abruzzo. Can you talk about just a little bit about how much stress that area is under?”

Dr Francesco Avanzi

“Right now we see even larger deficit down there, I checked the numbers over the last few days, we have deficit on the order of minus 80%, [in some places] close to minus 90%, compared to the last 13 years, which were still quite warm. So the benchmark we are taking is over quite warm years already. The bulk of snowfall in the area comes in January, February and March. So on the one hand, there is still time in the Apennines, much more than in the Alps to feel this deficit. It’s a different climate to some extent. On the other hand, the main issue with the Apennines is that they don’t have glacier supply. So in the Alps we can somehow cope with the dry weather by using glacier melt. Given that there is no glacier in central and southern Italy, to provide a big chunk of the total water that is used, especially in the in the headwater basins to feed agriculture and all the other uses during the much drier season in summer. So again, I think that is the main stress point that we will have to monitor over the next few weeks, is really that there is no reservoir in central Italy, given that it is a cornerstone of how they cope with water supply during spring and summer, and it’s a much larger deficit right now than in the Alps.”

Nick Breeze 

“Have you been able to put a number it, or quantify how big this deficit actually is?”

Dr Francesco Avanzi

“At national level, we currently have about 1/3 of the water volume in snow that we are used to having for this time of year at the national level in the Alps. Again, most of our snow is in the Alps, so this deficit that I told you about the national level, it’s very similar to the one we have in the Alps 1/3. In the Apennines, more than that, -80, -90. Overall in terms of water volume, it’s a big number we are currently missing about 4 Giga cubic metre of water. Usually when peak accumulation between March and April we estimate we have about 13 Giga cubic metre of water in snow at national level. We are currently missing four of them.”

Nick Breeze 

“I just wanted to clarify that is billion. So that is 4 billion cubic metres.”

Dr Francesco Avanzi

“Exactly sorry, 4 billion cubic metres. Sorry, yeah, there was scientific lexicon. billion cubic metre. If your listeners are familiar, it’s about 15% of Lake Maggiore, in terms of volume, in northern Italy, just to give you a parallel of what we are missing at the moment.” Again, it’s early but it’s certainly a deficit. It’s not the best start for the snow season.

Nick Breeze

“Italy is a country with widespread agriculture, there’s a lot of water demand. If this process continues, which seems to be you know, the trends are pointing in that direction, what are the challenges that you foresee in these scenarios?”

Dr Francesco Avanzi

So there are two processes, two mechanisms that will change the way we are used to use water in alpine regions. The first one is that we will have to cope with less snow across the board. So a decrease in water volume during this normal period coming from snow. On the other hand, what we also see is a shift towards earlier snow seasons. So a later start, earlier melt out date. There are data from some colleagues of ours from CIMA, that have just showed that the duration of the snow season right now is unprecedented over the last 600 years in the Alps. So that’s also part of the problem. So this means that, on the one hand, we have to cope with less water from snow, coming earlier than usual during spring. This means that we will have to rethink, to some extent, some of our practice in terms of where and when we store water, and when and how we use it. Last year gave us already quite a lot of lessons and I think to some extent it raised our awareness of changes that are happening. We will have to continue that adaptation and mitigation.”

This reminds us, as Francesco said at the outset, that drought is a creeping disaster. The water is stored as snow in the mountains. It runs down into rivers, into the soils and is stored beneath as groundwater. It is a mechanism that we regard as an infinite cycle. Human made climate change is interrupting the cycle by erasing the source of the water.

Dr Francesco Avanzi

“…snow that is not accumulating in a mountain during winter is water that we are not going to have during summer. That’s when we need water the most for agriculture, for freshwater supply, and that translated into significant streamflow deficit… so water supply issues all across the board, there are some ingredients in that, in terms of warmer temperature, less snow, and less water, that are, as I said, part of a broader picture of climate change that is unfolding.”

The atmospheric burden of greenhouse gases is so great that there is no known countervailing force that will reverse the loss of the snow pack. If heatwaves persist across consecutive years then pressure on groundwater increases.

Dr Francesco Avanzi

“…  when it comes to Alpine regions and areas that take water from groundwater, one single dry season might not be so evident then when we look at fresh water supply. So every citizen may then see very little precipitation. But then when you look at the groundwater, you still see water availability, and you come up with a question, so was is it so bad because we still have water in our soils, right? The point is that, especially when we look at groundwater, so water in the ground, it takes a lot of years to adjust to climatic trends. So this year was particularly dry, we had nearly half of the precipitation that we we are used to having. Groundwater is a savings account. We can take from that to cope with a single dry year. But then when we look at several dry years in a row, that reserve may dry up. So that’s probably what I will be more interested in, looking at the broader picture at a larger timescale.”

Counterintuitively, when we see years of drought, we also see increased risk of dangerous flooding from increased atmospheric moisture. As Francesco says, this creates an urgent need for rethinking how we capture and store water.

Dr Francesco Avanzi

“…obviously, in a warmer world, we will have more evaporation. So more water that goes into the atmosphere, that’s the basic mechanism underlying a drier world. But then this moisture has to fall somewhere, at some point. That’s why we see these extreme events in terms of flooding. Again, the paradigm that we have developed historically, in terms of water infrastructures in areas like Italy, in particularly northern Italy, I’m thinking where I live is really focusing on infrastructures to store water to some extent. But then we have these natural infrastructure made of the snowpack and glaciers that store water up in the mountains and that is key to deliver that water when we need it the most in summer. This natural infrastructure is declining and that means that we need to find new ways to cope with that. If not store that water, at least use the water we have more efficiently. In terms again in how we use it, how we quantify requirements and how we formulate water management policy.”

This is a critical juncture in how we understand and adapt to a new way of thinking about water management. Whether we are using water for our business or for washing our face or nourishing our families, we all have to take care to ensure that we have water security going forward.

Dr Francesco Avanzi

“What the first point that I think we learn as a country is that this is part of our everyday life, it somehow reshapes what everyone of us, when we think about water, we now understand to a larger extent, that it’s a precious resource, and we hope that in the future, this will also translate into behavioural change. Of course, each and every one of us has to give more value to water. We use 200, sometimes even 300 litres per person every day, which is obviously a great deal. We also think that this summer this year taught us that adaptation and climate change should really enter into decision making and planning projects.”

“So obviously, it’s an endeavour, where each and every one of us can play a role and where as a country and a community we can adapt. That adaptation doesn’t mean that mitigation is over. Many climate change scenarios show that if we are able to meet the Paris Agreement goals, we will still be able to reduce the frequency and intensity of these extremes by a considerable amount. So there is obviously actions that must be taken at the community level and actions where each and every one can play a role. There are solutions, saving water, more smart agriculture, improved water resources management, I think the takeaway for the listeners is that there are actions going on. It’s a long process, but there is rising awareness at all levels, that these extremes are part of our everyday life here and in the decades to come.”

Nick Breeze

“Have you been surprised at the speed of this? Or is it roughly what you expected in the broader context of warmer climate?”

Dr Francesco Avanzi

“… to some extent, it fits very well into that story of increasing temperature, declining snowpack, there are observations across the Italian Alps, the Swiss Alps, showing consistent decline in snow water sources. So it is part of the trend that we have already seen over the last decades. On the other hand, last year was quite unprecedented in terms of the intensity and extent of the process. I think it’s part of a new normal that we have to get used to, to some extent. If I think about other regions of the world, California has also experienced similar processes in terms of a lack of snowpack, and so a lack of water resources. Right now, California is experiencing one of the major flood events over the last decades. So really, what we are seeing is a shift toward more extreme weather, where prolonged droughts are followed by extreme flood events.”

The comparison with California should not be taken lightly. The multiyear drought has created legal disputes over rights to ground water aquifers and raised many questions about farming the land sustainably. There has also been destructive flooding where torrential rainwater has fallen across land scorched hard from extreme wildfires in the heatwaves. Here is former White House Advisor Dr Alice Hill, speaking at COP 27 in Glasgow:

Dr Alice Hill

“I’ll give you an example. In 2017 and 2018 we had devastating wildfires in California. The town of Paradise, a lower middle class town in the mountains of California, burned to the ground. Eight people died and 20,000 people overnight were thrown into another adjoining town called Chico, California. Chico already suffered from affordable housing challenges and suddenly 20,000 people appear with kindergarteners who need to get enrolled in school, people looking for jobs, people looking for a place to live. A highly difficult situation for both those that have been displaced and in the receiving communities. 

But the modelling doesn’t really pick up, beyond that economic dislocation, what else happened. It turned out that the fires got so hot that the piping underneath Paradise melted, perhaps spreading toxic chemicals to the water supply. We then saw that the wildfire smoke caused health implications,  increased asthma, increased respiratory disease, spreading all the way over to where I live in Washington DC, the smoke was that bad. 

And now an atmospheric river has dumped a lot of rain on California and we’re seeing mudslides because that very scarred area with intense heat from these wildfires that burn hotter, makes the land so tough that the water when it hits just picks up boulders and everything else and we have our reservoirs in the mountains in California, threatening our freshwater supplies.”

Alice went on to emphasise that when it comes to climate impacts, the past is no longer a reliable guide to the future. We need to learn and adapt in real-time. 

A Europe-wide water crisis is not just creeping, it is accelerating up on us. As the climate responds to our carbon dioxide emissions, we have to search for ways to adapt and survive in an ever more challenging world. We can only do this by supporting research that seeks to identify what a survivable world looks like and pushing our policymakers to 

The water topic is one I will be returning to again in future episodes.


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