Earlier this year, I wrote the conclusion of The Water Engine, a book manuscript about the Po watershed over two centuries. The story begins a long time ago, at the end of the eighteenth century, but it ends close to the present, in the summer of 2003. That year, the Po watershed experienced one of the worst droughts in recorded history. The drought lasted for more than one month and, unlike other twentieth century droughts, it affected the whole watershed, causing massive crop failures, energy blackouts, and localized shortages of drinking water. It showed to what extent the economy of the watershed, which is the agricultural, urban, and industrial core of Italy, is vulnerable to water scarcity. It seemed an apt conclusion to a story that recounts two centuries of water intensification for agriculture and energy production.
While I was writing about the 2003 drought, the Po watershed was experiencing an even more severe drought. Irrigation was suspended in some areas and severely curtailed in others. On satellite pictures and drone films, landscapes that are usually green turned brown, and the blue-grey water of the Po River was replaced by the white sand of the dry riverbed.
By the end of the month, the hydroelectric power plant of Isola Serafini, which uses the current of the Po River, was shut down for lack of water. The Po Watershed Authority, a river basin planning agency, reported that the river had reached the lowest average monthly discharge ever recorded near the delta. Lack of water from the river allowed seawater to penetrate up to 40 kilometers inland, with severe damages to ecosystems, farms, and drinking water supply.
In the meantime, temperatures were breaking records. In Paris, where I live and work, temperatures reached 38 degrees Celsius on June 18. We barricaded in our home, opening windows and stores only at night and early in the morning, and shut them during much of the day. During the worst day of the heatwave, the temperature in our flat reached 29 degrees Celsius. It was uncomfortably hot, but almost 10 degrees cooler than outside.
Even in 2003, drought and heatwave came hand in hand. That summer, records of heat were broken across Europe, causing at least 14,000 excess deaths in France alone and possibly 18,000 in Italy. Temperatures had been high the whole year, preparing the drought and exacerbating its effects. During winter, higher than average temperature led to less snow on the Alps and Apennines. Snow is the main source of spring and summer water in the Po, so little snow in the winter means less water in the hot season. High temperatures in the spring, in turn, meant that irrigation season started earlier, thus contributing to increasing water withdrawals in a context of general shortage. As the first summer heatwave arrived, air conditioning use boomed, increasing energy consumption while production was suffering for lack of cooling water. By the end of June 2003, some power plants halved their production, while others stopped altogether. Irrigation was also severely curtailed, causing widespread crop failures. To deal with the crisis, the national government for the first time entrusted the Po Watershed Authority with emergency management of water withdrawals across the watershed.
Following the 2003 European heatwave, in a paper pioneering contemporary “attribution science” climate scientists argued that anthropogenic climate change had increased the likelihood of such extreme weather events. In the Po Valley, water managers and scientists emphasized that the drought too was a clear symptom of a changing climate. Snow was coming later and there was less and less of it.
Spring rain did not come as often and as abundant as it once was. Mountain glaciers were melting, announcing a future when Alpine streams might run dry during the summer. Soon, they warned, droughts like the 2003 one would become frequent, requiring “strong actions for the adaptation to climate change.”
They were right, of course. Between 2003 and 2022, the Po watershed has experienced multiple episodes of basin-wide drought. As in 2003, these droughts have severely impacted agriculture and energy production. The authorities reactivated and eventually institutionalized the emergency management of water use at the watershed scale that was first experimented with in 2003, acknowledging that climate change required a structural reform of water governance. Despite recurring droughts, however, during the last twenty years the vulnerability of agriculture and energy production to water scarcity has not diminished. No one has really prepared for a future of droughts.
But how to do so? The first step would be to acknowledge that a dwindling water supply is only part of the problem. What turns droughts into disasters is the dependence of the valley’s economy on intensive water use. This dependence has been centuries in the making, first through the expansion and consolidation of irrigated agriculture and livestock farming, later through the development of a water-intensive energy sector. The growth of food and power production in the valley has constantly been premised on the assumption of water abundance and the intention to maximize its use for economic gains. As a result, agriculture and energy are very thirsty businesses, not designed to cope with scarcity and drought.
When I finished the conclusion of my manuscript, in my overheating flat, I still couldn’t help feeling a chill go down my spine. Looking back to the past, I could see very clearly why the Po watershed is still as vulnerable to drought as it was in 2003. Adjusting to the new hydrological conditions would require a transformation of historic proportions in food and energy production, breaking with patterns of intensive water use that are centuries old. And yet, at this point there is no way around such a radical rethinking of water use. As I am writing this piece, the drought in the Po River is not yet over and rivers are running dry across the rest of Europe. Navigation along the Rhine River is at risk, and one can cross the dry bed of the Loire River on foot.
Water will be back in these rivers, eventually, but so will drought. The only choice we have is whether to prepare for it or be overwhelmed by it.