On the 24th of July 2017, the beautiful baroque fountains in St Peter’s Square, Rome, were switched off. Over the following days, one hundred fountains around the Vatican trickled to a stop for the first time in living memory. Rome and Southern Italy were suffering a prolonged drought and mounting water restrictions: the capital’s historic public drinking fountains had already been switched off and residents were facing the prospect of severe water rationing. It was, perhaps, a defining moment in Italy’s ongoing struggle with its water supply.
The seasonality and regionality of Italy’s rainfall means it has a precarious relationship with water.
Northern Italy gets nearly twice as much rainfall as the south, where water scarcity is exacerbated by higher annual temperatures that intensify evaporation. Meanwhile, Italy’s mountainous terrain makes it difficult to move surplus water between its regions. These factors, along with abnormally low soil moisture, means that although there’s a plentiful 392 billion cubic yards (300 billion cubic meters) of water that falls or flows into Italy every year, barely 76 billion cubic yards (58 billion cubic meters) can actually be used. Of this, over 70 percent forms surface water such as the springs, lakes, and rivers that are the primary water source for most Italian cities, towns, and villages: the Arno River supplies much of the water for Florence while Rome draws a majority of its domestic water from springs. But when the rains fail, these water sources can quickly dry up—and across southern Italy, the rains are failing more frequently.
2017 was Italy’s driest summer for sixty years with up to 80 percent less rainfall than the historic average. This water shortage was compounded by a summer heatwave with temperatures soaring above 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius). Such extreme events, commonly linked to climate change, are expected to become both more frequent and more severe. Twice in the last two years, Venice’s famed canals have run so dry that their iconic gondolas were grounded; the Italian island of Sardinia applied for natural disaster status in 2017; in Sicily wildfires destroyed forests and farms, forcing evacuations. So far, 2019 has seen Rome and many other cities, towns, and villages facing one of the country’s driest summers yet. Even the relatively wet north was reduced to just one month’s reserves of water.
This could be the pattern for Italy’s water future as climate change in the Mediterranean has already seen average temperatures rise by 34.5 degrees Fahrenheit (1.4 degrees Celsius) while precipitation has fallen by 2.5 percent. For Italy, the future could be one of strengthening seasonal extremes: scientific projections are for more intense winter rains and flooding in the wetter north while the drier south suffers from even less annual rainfall with a substantial decrease in the summer—a drop of as much as 40 percent in some already arid areas. Overall, the availability of usable water in Italy is likely to worsen with the country’s high water stress rating predicted to increase 25 percent during the course of this century.
But if the taps do run dry, nature won’t be entirely to blame—man-made factors are making Italy’s problems much worse. Two thousand years ago Italy boasted the most advanced aqueducts of the time, carrying water many miles to sate the thirst of its emergent cities. Today, Italy’s water infrastructure is struggling, and efforts are being made to repair and replace the outdated and inefficient parts of the network. In the last two years, an additional 20 percent of investment has driven urgent upgrades to Rome’s 3,355 miles (5,400 kilometers) of pipes that have been losing some 44 percent of the city’s water supply.
It’s a waste of water that Italy can ill afford because its demand is particularly high. Italy has one of the highest water footprints in Europe, at 3012 cubic yards (2,303 cubic meters) per person per year. That’s 25 percent above the European average. The main draw on Italy’s water supply is agriculture, as large areas of Italy are not naturally suited for crops and require extensive irrigation. Of the water used for irrigation, 15 percent comes from non-renewable groundwater, twice as much as Spain and seven times that of Greece, draining resources that cannot naturally be replenished. Agriculture also contributes to Italy’s problem of water pollution, as fertilizers have joined industrial and domestic contaminants in seeping into the water table. In 2014, the European Court of Justice took legal action against the Italian government for failing to adequately treat water sources inundated with calcium, arsenic, and fluoride. It’s one reason that few Italians choose to drink water from household faucets, preferring to rely on bottled water, some 400 pints (230 liters) per person per year.
In the home, the average Italian uses just over 58 gallons (220 liters) of potable water per time for domestic tasks such as cooking, washing, and cleaning. The majority of this water, over 60 percent, goes on personal hygiene with about half of that being flushed down the toilet. By contrast, many people in developing countries survive on just five to eight gallons (20-30 liters per day)—often less. Estimates suggest that much of our domestic water use is unnecessary, and that huge water savings could be achieved if people changed a few simple behaviors. Among these are taking shorter showers, installing water meters and low-pressure faucets, not pre-rinsing dishes, and using a dishwasher as it is ten times more water efficient than handwashing. However, with Italy’s water among the cheapest in western Europe, Italians must look beyond financial incentives for a reason to reduce water consumption. The imminent prospect of more droughts and greater water restrictions, and a growing awareness that regular water shortages could soon become the norm, might be the motivation Italy needs—turning off the fountains in Rome may prove to be a catalyst for change.