“We are in an extreme crisis.” Italian parmesan producers fear for the future as the Po River drops

The “Big River,” as it is known, plays an integral role in the nation’s history. Before bridges were built, its deep waters protected civilizations on either side from invaders who could not cross.

In later years, cities and industries sprang up on its banks, using the water for hydroelectric power, transportation, and irrigation. Along some stretches of the Po River, treatment plants turn the muddy river into drinking water.

The Po is fed by the winter snows in the Alps and heavy spring rains, which often lead to devastating floods. In a café on the riverbank near the city of Mantova, a measuring stick on the wall shows how high the water has risen. In 1951 it almost touched the roof.

But in 2022 it will be very different. An unusually dry winter resulted in little snowmelt and only sporadic spring rains, leading to the worst drought in Italy’s northern regions in more than 70 years, a regional Po River agency confirmed.

As a result, the Po is hitting a record low, according to the European Space Agency. An animation from the agency’s Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite mission shows how the river “shrunk significantly” between June 2020 and June 2022.

And that’s a big problem for the millions of people who depend on butt for a living. The salinization of the Adriatic has begun to turn its freshwater into poison unusable for harvesting. Recent samples show saltwater more than 20 kilometers (12 miles) inland, and as the river drops deeper, the sea will continue to fill in the gap.

Massimiliano Fazzini, head of the Climate Risks Department of the Italian Society of Environmental Geology, says that in the current hydrological year, which began on December 1, the Po basin is experiencing a water deficit of around 45 to 70 percent in some areas.

“I’m usually never a pessimist or an alarmist, but this time we have to be alarmist,” he told CNN, noting the difference in average snowfall from 7.5 meters (24.6 feet) in normal years to 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) this year combined with rising temperatures that have resulted in underutilization of reservoirs that could be accessible in a drought year. “The situation is critical and can only get worse,” he said.

At Simone Minelli’s dairy on the banks of the river near Mantua, the outlook is bleak. Water is an essential part of the operation to feed his herd of 300 Friesian cattle, he told CNN.

His dairy cows produce 30 liters of milk a day, which is processed into the region’s authentic Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. If his cows don’t drink between 100 and 150 liters of water a day or are overheated, the milk doesn’t meet the strict standards and the cheese doesn’t get the coveted seal of approval.

But a greater concern than the water in their troughs is what they will eat. Minelli uses water from the Po mainly to irrigate crops to feed his cattle. He showed CNN a soybean field that wasn’t irrigated and is suffering from small, withered plants that can’t feed his livestock.

He is concerned about water restrictions as he sees Po levels drop even further – and where he might even buy feed if other farmers are suffering similarly. “I worry a lot, we take it day by day,” he said. “If you don’t have enough forage to feed your livestock, you have to cut back,” he said, referring to the number of cows in his herd.

Simone Minelli ponders how he will feed his herd of 300 Friesian cattle.

At the nearby Consortium Parmigiano Reggiano, its milk is blended with that of 20 other dairy farmers to produce 52,000 rounds of the coveted cheese annually. If the milk becomes dry, the cheese will not be made.

Further upstream, Ada Giorgi showed CNN the pump house, run by the consortium she has chaired for 20 years. The consortium has had to pay to have sand removed from the riverbed to keep the pumps from clogging, she said, and has added a meter (3.3 feet) of pipe to lower the pumps even further if water levels continue to drop. The water from the pump house feeds a maze of channels that lead to irrigation centers and processing plants.

The consortium’s 150,000 customers are still getting water, but as Giorgi looks at the level of the Po, she says she’s worried about the future. “The last time the river was low was in 2003,” she told CNN. “It’s much, much worse this time. There is no rain, no snow and high temperatures,” she said. “It creates the famous perfect storm. We are in an extreme crisis.”

The production of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is observed at a site near Mantova.
Unless it rains – and no significant rain is forecast for the near future – things will only get worse. In the city of Milan, Italy’s financial hub, the mayor has ordered all ornamental fountains to be turned off and bans from washing private vehicles or watering gardens and lawns.

In the small town of Castenaso, near Bologna, hairdressers are reportedly banned from washing their clients’ hair twice to save water before supplies run out.

Meanwhile, a grueling heatwave has swept across much of southern Italy since May.

A woman stands on the Po river bed next to the Ponte della Becca (Becca Bridge) in Linarolo, near Pavia, Italy, June 27, 2022.
Scientists describe the Mediterranean region as a hotspot of the climate crisis. The man-made crisis has resulted in more frequent and intense heat waves and less summer rainfall. Temperatures are expected to be between 20% and 50% higher than the global average, and droughts will worsen here by mid-century even as the world cuts its greenhouse gas emissions. If emissions remain at very high levels, droughts and wildfires will become so severe that it will be difficult for agriculture to continue. Tourism will also become less attractive.

Italy is a net exporter of food, supplying many developing countries with commodities such as wheat. A drought here only exacerbates a food crisis that is being felt acutely in poorer parts of the world. And the Po River is of paramount importance to Italians.

Author Tobias Jones, whose book The Po – An Elegy for Italy’s Longest River traces the history of the river, followed the entire length of the river to capture its importance. He says the Po is to Italy what the Thames is to London or the Mississippi is to the United States.

“For centuries the river was about flooding, but climate change has meant the river is now in danger of drying up,” he told CNN.

“It’s not just a river, it’s part of the national psyche. The cities along it attract tourism and industry. It was almost a moat for central Italy, protecting it from invaders. Now he’s under threat and no one knows what to do to save it.”

CNN’s Angela Dewan and Chad Myers contributed to this report.

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