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

The water is so shallow in large stretches of Italy’s largest river that local residents are walking through the stretch of sand and the wrecks are resurfacing.

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

In a park near the central northern town of Gualtieri, cyclists and hikers stop intrigued to observe the Zibello, a 50 meter (164 ft) long barge that transported wood during the Second World War but sank in 1943. Normally it is covered by water. of the Po.

Italy river drought
A World War II barge re-emerged on the River Po in Gualtieri, Italy on Wednesday, June 15, 2022.

Luca Bruno / AP

“This is the first time we have seen this barge,” said amateur cyclist Raffaele Vezzali as he stepped off the pedals to stare at the rusty ship. Vezzali was only partially surprised, however, as he knew that the lack of winter rain had driven the river to record levels.

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

“You could see the bow of the boat in recent years, so we knew it was there, but seeing the ship so exposed in March, when it was essentially still winter, was very dramatic,” Bonin told the Guardian. “I have never seen such a drought at this time of year: our main concern was the flooding of the river, now we worry about it disappearing.”

The images from space also captured other draining bodies of water in northern Italy.

But the curiosities of a re-emerged wartime boat and wide sandy beaches do little to mask the inconvenience this will cause to local residents and farmers.

The draining of the Po, which runs for 652 kilometers (405 miles) from the northwestern city of Turin to Venice, puts drinking water in the densely populated and highly industrialized districts of Italy at risk and threatens irrigation in the most intensive part of the country, known as the Italian food valley.

Northern Italy has not seen rainfall for more than 110 days and this year the snowfall has decreased by 70%. The aquifers, which hold groundwater, are depleted. Temperatures of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above the seasonal average are melting the tiny snowfields and glaciers that remained on the top of the surrounding Alps, leaving the Po Valley without its summer water reserves.

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

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

The authority constantly monitors the flow of the river, but there is little hope that the weather will help. The downpours that occurred in June were extreme but very localized and were not absorbed by the soil and did not reach the Po and its aquifers.

Berselli is frantically working on a resilience plan to ensure drinking and irrigation water for millions of families and farmers in the Po Valley, who produce 40% of Italian food. In the area grow in large quantities Parmesan, wheat and tomatoes of high quality, rice and renowned grapes.

The resilience plan provides for greater drainage of alpine lakes, less water for hydroelectric plants and water rationing in upstream regions.

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

Martina Codeluppi, a 27-year-old farmer from the small rural town of Guastalla, says that her fields are entirely irrigated with water from the Po and are already suffering from the lack of winter and spring rains. She said she expects a “disastrous year”.

“With temperatures so high … no rain, and it looks like there will be no rain in the next few days, the situation is catastrophic,” said Codeluppi, as he walked through his family’s fields. She proudly grows pumpkins, watermelons, wheat and grapes on farmland passed down by the family, but she is extremely concerned about what this year’s crops will produce.

“We believe there will be a drop in grain productivity of at least 20 percent or more due to lack of rain and irrigation,” he said. The Italian Confederation of Farmers estimates that wheat yield could drop from 20% to 40% this year. Wheat is of particular concern to farmers as it is completely dependent on rain and is not irrigated.

The irrigation system is also at risk. Usually, the water from the river is brought with diesel-fueled electric pumps to the upper basins and then flows into the vast fields of the valley through hundreds of watercourses. But now, the pumps are in danger of failing to draw water, and excavators are working frantically to constantly dredge dedicated streams to ensure the water needed for irrigation.

Water shortages will not only hinder food production, but also energy production. If the Po dries up, numerous hydroelectric power plants will come to a halt at a time when the war in Ukraine has already driven up energy prices across Europe.

According to a manager of the state-owned energy services system, 55% of renewable energy from hydroelectric plants in Italy comes from the Po and its tributaries. Experts fear that the lack of hydroelectricity will help increase carbon dioxide emissions, as more electricity needs to be produced with natural gas.

“In addition to the critical situation, we are creating a further damaging situation”, said Berselli of the Po river authority regarding the probable increase in greenhouse gas emissions.