Italy’s largest river dries up, exposing World War II trade that sank in 1943




Water is so low in large stretches of Italy’s largest river that local residents are walking by the middle of the area of sand and shipwrecks are resurfacing.

Authorities fear that if it doesn’t rain soon, there’ll be a serious shortage of water for drinking and irrigation for farmers and local populations across the whole of northern Italy.

In a park near the central northern village of Gualtieri, cyclists and hikers stop in curiosity to observe the Zibello, a 50-meter long (164 feet) trade that transported wood during the second world war but sank in 1943. It is typically covered by the Po’s waters.

Italy River Drought

A trade dating back to World War II has re-emerged on the Po river in Gualtieri, Italy, Wednesday, June 15, 2022. 

Luca Bruno / AP

“It’s the first time that we can see this trade,” said amateur cyclist Raffaele Vezzali as he got off the pedals to stare at the rusted ship. Vezzali was only slightly surprised, though, as he knew that the without of winter rain caused the river to reach record low levels.

Amateur photographer Alessio Bonin told the Guardian he used a drone to capture images of the trade.

‘We worry about it disappearing’: Alarm grows over Italy’s drought-hit Po River https://t.co/d7372OZE1T

— The Guardian (@guardian) June 17, 2022

“In recent years you could see the bow of the boat, so we knew it was there, but to see the canal so exposed in March, when it was essentially nevertheless winter, was very emotional,” Bonin told the Guardian. “I’ve never seen such a drought at this time of year – our main worry used to be our river flooding, now we worry about it disappearing.”

Images from space have also captured other bodies of water drying up in northern Italy.

But the curiosities of a resurfaced wartime boat and wide sandy beaches do little to disguise the disruption this will cause for local residents and farmers.

The drying up of the Po, which runs 652 kilometers (405 miles) from the northwestern city of Turin to Venice, is jeopardizing drinking water in Italy’s densely populated and highly industrialized districts and threatening irrigation in the most intensively farmed part of the country, known as the Italian food valley.

Northern Italy hasn’t seen rainfall for more than 110 days and this year’s snowfall is down by 70%. Aquifers, which keep up groundwater, are depleted. Temperatures of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above season average are melting the tiny snowfields and glaciers that were left on the top of the surrounding Alps, leaving the Po basin without its summer water reservoirs.

All these factors are triggering the worst drought in 70 years, according to the Po River Basin Authority.

“We are in a situation where the river flow is approximately 300 cubic meters (80,000 gallons) per second here in (the riverside village of) Boretto, while typically in this area we have almost 1800 (cubic meters, 476,000 gallons),” explained Meuccio Berselli, secretary general of the Po River Basin Authority.

The authority is regularly monitoring the river flow but there is very little hope that weather will help. The downpours that occurred in the month of June were extreme but highly localized and weren’t absorbed by the land and didn’t reach the Po and its aquifers.

Berselli is frantically working on a resiliency plan to guarantee drinking and irrigation water to millions of households and to the Po valley farmers, who produce 40% of Italian food. Parmesan cheese, wheat, and high-quality tomatoes, rice and renowned grapes grow in huge quantities in the area.

The resilience plan includes higher draining from Alpine lakes, less water for hydroelectric plants and rationing of water in the upstream regions.

The Po drought comes at a time when farmers are already pushing both irrigation and watering systems to their maximum to counter the effect of high temperatures and hot winds.

Martina Codeluppi, a 27-year-old farmer from the tiny rural town of Guastalla, says her fields are thoroughly irrigated with the water coming from the Po and are already experiencing due to the without of winter and spring rain. She said she’s expecting a “disastrous year.”

“With such high temperatures… with no rain, and it seems that there won’t be rain in the coming days, the situation is extreme,” said Codeluppi, as she walked by her family’s fields. She’s proudly growing pumpkins, watermelons, wheat and grapes on farmland passed down by the family, but she’s extremely concerned about what this year’s harvests will provide.

“We believe that there will be a drop in this wheat productivity by at the minimum 20% or more due to the without of rain and irrigation,” she said. The Italian farmers confederation estimates that wheat yields could drop by 20% to 40% this year. Wheat is a particular concern for farmers as it’s completely reliant on rain and does not get irrigated.

The irrigation system is also at risk. Usually, river water is lifted with diesel-fueled electric pumps to upper basins and then flows down in the great fields of the valley by hundreds of waterways. But now, pumps are at risk of failing to draw water and excavators are frantically working to regularly dredge dedicated waterways to ensure the water necessary for irrigation.

The water shortage won’t just make difficulty food production, but energy generation, too. If the Po dries up, numerous hydroelectric strength plants will be brought to a stop at a time where the war in Ukraine has already hiked up energy prices across Europe.

According to a state-owned energy service system operator, 55% of the replaceable energy coming from hydroelectric plants in Italy comes from the Po and its tributaries. Experts fear that a without of hydroelectric strength will contribute to increased carbon dioxide emissions, as more electricity will have to be produced with natural gas.

“On the top of the basic situation we are creating an additional damaging situation,” said the Po river authority’s Berselli about the likely surge of greenhouse gas emissions.

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