Drought in Sicily leaves farmers facing an uncertain future as they struggle with parched lands and dwindling water resources.

Every morning, as soon as he wakes up, Luca Cammarata looks to the sky in the hope that some clouds on the horizon will bring a few drops of water. On his farm in the Sicilian interior, it hasn’t rained for months. Cammarata’s 200 goats graze on a parched landscape resembling a lunar surface, forced to eat dry weeds and drink from a muddy pond.

The 53-year-old has never experienced a drought like it. “If things continue like this,” he said, “I will be forced to butcher my livestock and close down my farm.”

The desert is encroaching across Sicily, the largest and most populous island in the Mediterranean, where a European temperature high of 48.8C was recorded in 2021. Rainfall is down by more than 40% since 2003. In the last six months of 2023, just 150mm of rain fell.

“The situation is dramatic, there is no longer any water for the animals to drink,” Cammarata said. “The only water resource we have is this artificial pond, but now there is nothing but mud. We ask the authorities to send the army to help us get water to the farms. We can’t let the animals die. A farmer can’t bear to see their animals die of thirst.”

In May the government in Rome declared a state of emergency over the Sicilian drought, allocating €20m in assistance – well short of the €130m requested by the regional government.

Christian Mulder, a professor of ecology and climate emergency at the University of Catania on the island, painted a stark picture of Sicily’s future while criticising what he said were serious failures on the part of regional and national authorities. “By 2030, a third of the territory of Sicily will become a desert, comparable to the lands of Tunisia and Libya,” Mulder said. “The entire strip facing the Sicilian Channel [waters separating Sicily from Africa] is doomed to desertification. The ancient Arabs who once inhabited the island had successfully devised ways to manage water. However, these old aqueducts have not been maintained or updated. Sicily is now facing the concrete consequences of decades of mismanagement of water resources.”

Traditionally, drinking water in the island is sourced from aquifers, subterranean rock layers saturated with water, while water for agriculture is stored in large tanks constructed after the second world war. Both systems rely on increasingly scarce winter rainfall. For three decades, essential maintenance to the irrigation network has been neglected, diminishing the capacity of the island’s reservoirs. “Once we had artificial ponds that so that the livestock could drink during grazing,” Cammarata said. “But due to drought and high temperatures, all the small artificial ponds have dried up.”

In October 2023, average temperatures in the island ranged between 28 and 30C, with peaks reaching 34-35C, making it the hottest October in Sicily in the past 100 years. But the real problem comes in summer, when temperatures approach 48C and waves of fires pulverise what little vegetation remains. Last year, according to an estimate made by the regional civil protection agency, fires caused more than €60m (£51m) worth of damage. More than 693 hectares (1,712 acres) of woodland on the island were destroyed.

“It gets worse every day,” said Liborio Mangiapane, a farmer in Agrigento. “The situation is exacerbating. It’s a tragedy.”

Sicily, Malta and Spain are among the Mediterranean regions most affected by severe drought conditions. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has forecast that heatwaves and droughts will increasingly afflict these areas in the next few decades.

Nationwide agricultural production declined by 1.8% in 2023 due to the impact of the climate emergency, according to the national statistics agency. The agency reported decreases in wine production of 17.4% and fruit production of 11.2%.

Coldiretti, Italy’s biggest farmers’ association, is striving to support farmers by dipping into its own pockets to buy water in order to refill artificial lakes. But this effort alone is insufficient. “The situation continues to deteriorate,” said Francesco Ferreri, the Sicilian president of Coldiretti. “The damages suffered within the agricultural sector are now reverberating across other economic domains. We must address this issue and prudently manage the limited resources at hand by prioritising those farmers most in need.”

The drought is driving young Sicilian farmers out of the industry and off the island, according to the Association of Young Agricultural Entrepreneurs. Coldiretti estimates that the water shortage has already cost 33,000 jobs in the fields of southern Italy.

Farmers have been demonstrating for months over the sector’s crisis, with many refusing to vote in local and European elections as a form of protest.

In many provinces of Sicily, companies managing water services have announced water rationing, forcing businesses to shut down and denying more than a million people daily access to running water. According to the National Association of the Agricultural Water Board, some reservoirs designated for drinking water were operating at just 10% of capacity in March.

Scientists say the climate emergency could sweep traditional agricultural crops from the Mediterranean, leaving growers to search for tropical alternatives. In the last three years the production of avocados, mangos and papaya has doubled in Sicily, while in Palermo’s botanical garden researchers have registered for the first time the blooming of welwitschia, a native of the southern African Namib desert. In 2021 the Morettino family, with a century-long history in the coffee industry, successfully cultivated their own coffee on a small plot of land in Sicily, aiming to establish the world’s northernmost coffee farm.

“It is true that Sicily is becoming more tropical [in terms of temperatures],” Mulder said. “But in tropical areas, it’s not uncommon to have 2-3 metres of rainfall a year, a far cry from Sicily’s averages.”

In Enna province the reservoirs are running dry and the rural landscape in summer resembles the deserts of the American west. Last week the mayor announced that water would be rationed to every other day.

Angelo Mannará, a farmer in Leonforte commune, is struggling to make ends meet. “For more than two years, we have not seen rain here,” he said. “We are facing a situation more disastrous than ever. We are at a loss. Our water sources have dried up, leaving us unable to provide water for our animals. How can we carry on?”

Original source: https://www.theguardian.com

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