The Italian river Po travels 403 miles from the Alps to the wilds of the Po river delta in the East, where it finally empties into the Adriatic Sea. Along the way, the water nourishes the agricultural fields that Italians have farmed for thousands of years. Today, the agricultural products it grows provides 40% of the nation’s GDP.
Euro News reports that currently, a drought so severe that it threatens the breadbasket of Italy has dried up the Po River so severely that seawater has been able to be ‘sucked back upstream.’ The reason is that the water in the delta is “higher than upstream. This is because the vacuum left by the lack of river water is being filled by seawater,” Giancarlo Mantovani, the Director of a consortium that protects the delta’s biodiversity, which can be seen flowing back upstream in some areas. For farmers in the area, it means saltwater seeping into the earth and poisoning crops, which are blackened and wilting.”
There has been no rain for three months and counting, but the source of the problem starts in the Alps, where snowfall is now at its lowest level in over twenty years, measuring fifty percent lower than average. It is not only reduced snowfall, but the Alp’s glaciers which are the reservoirs for freshwater, have rapidly thinned, enabling permafrost to thaw and massive boulders of rock to break off the towering mountains.
The process is playing out across the world, from the Himalayas to the Rocky Mountains and the Sierras in the United States and Canada. Scientists have warned of this process for decades and are becoming a severe threat from climate shocks that reduce the freshwater supply for billions of people worldwide. A warming planet is turning the agricultural lands of Italy into a ‘salty wasteland while putting hundreds of thousands of livelihoods at risk. “It is a 360-degree disaster,” states Mantovani to Rebecca Ann Hughes of Euro News.
The problem is now even direr as groundwater has begun to be pumped by farmers where they find only saltwater allowing, even more, to move upstream. A feedback loop is now set in motion, The result will be a loss of thirty percent of agricultural production to dead soil.
Rebecca Ann Hughes writes:
In the Delta, Mantovani’s consortium has installed two barriers in branches of the river to prevent the uptake of saltwater from the sea. “These barriers are allowing us to deviate the seawater and create reserves with the little freshwater arriving from the mountains,” he says.
This is being collected in vats and canals - to be used in moments when there may be only saltwater in the Delta, a very real possibility.
With little rainfall on the horizon for the next few weeks, Mantovani also explains the most immediate and vital course of action is that everyone using the water from the river reduces their consumption.
“If there is no water, everyone throughout the river’s course must play their part to lower their usage,” he says.
Of course, climate change is not the only factor disrupting the flow of Po. Humans have also channeled the water, which has reduced flooding of the fields that provides nourishment for healthy soils.
The region grows the tomato sauce, fruit, vegetables, and wheat along with fifty percent of the livestock in Italy.
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