Sicily declares state of emergency amid worst drought in almost 20 years

Sicily
Sicily Copyright Euronews
By Euronews
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Severe lack of rain and poor maintenance of irrigation facilities have led to water rationing affecting more than 800,000 citizens.

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Sicily has declared a state of emergency as the region experiences its worst drought in almost 20 years. 

A lack of winter rainfall after last year's hot summer has left supplies running low. Experts say it could be the third worst water crisis ever recorded on the island. Reservoirs are drying up, water is being rationed and farmers are reporting failed crops. 

It comes as severe drought hits countries across the western Mediterranean including parts of Spain and other regions of Italy. In early February, President of Sicily Renato Schifani declared the drought a natural disaster.

"Sicily is the only region in Italy and among the few in Europe in a red zone due to a shortage of water resources. Morocco and Algeria are in the same situation," the regional government said in a statement. 

Water rationing across Sicily

For local authorities, the situation is serious. Without timely intervention, there is a real risk that in a few weeks citizens will be without water.

"Around 10 to 15 per cent of water is already rationed in 55 municipalities," Massimo Burruano, Operations Director at water management company Siciliacque, told Euronews.

"However, as of Monday 4 March, water rationing will be implemented in more than 93 municipalities, affecting 850,000 residents. In some cases, rationing could reach 45 per cent." 

Most people on the island aren't strangers to water shortages, many have tanks on their roofs to collect rainwater. But even these systems are struggling in the face of recent extended dry spells. 

Farmers struggle as dry weather leads to failed crops

Farmers are particularly badly affectedby the drought,having already been impacted by severe weather in 2023.

The situation has become serious, with the lack of rain impacting the Italian island's production of citrus fruits, olives and wheat. 

In response, Schifani's government has appointed Dario Cartabellotta, general manager of the Agriculture Department, as commissioner. 

Cartabellota's mandate will be to streamline procedures to respond to the drought, support the cost of transporting livestock, oversee the exemption of rent payments for public grazing areas and the disbursement of an initial €5 million contribution to farms for the purchase of fodder and water supply.

Water levels are low in Sicily's lakes

The state of emergency is just the tip of the iceberg - the situation has been in freefall for several years now. 

Sicily has experienced eight months of "almost total aridity", according to the Associazione Nazionale Bonifiche Irrigazioni ('ANBI' - loosely translated as the National Irrigation Reclamation Association). The second half of 2023 was the driest in more than 100 years with recent rainfall having little to no impact on the situation. 

For the first time, the compulsory rationing of drinking water will affect almost the entire region of Sicily and not just a few cities. Due to low rainfall, the water level in Lake Rosamarina, just outside Palermo, has dropped dramatically. 

But the crisis is not just down to climate change.

"The water management consortia,  in Sicily, the only organisations responsible for managing water for irrigation purposes, have been in commission for over thirty years," Massimo Gargano, director general of ANBI told Euronews. 

"For three decades, the region has lacked an adequate management structure, with no new projects, and maintenance has not been carried out adequately."

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Farmers and local officials have raised concerns about the lack of maintenance on dams that hold the water in at vital reservoirs. 

They say as levels have risen at Trinità dam in Castelvetrano, the bulkheads have had to open for safety reasons, releasing the little rain that has fallen. 

"In a particularly dry year, like the current one, this is a luxury we cannot afford," says Camillo Pugliesi president of Sicily's regional branch of the Italian Agriculture Confederation. 

"We had reassurances last year that solutions would be put in place to avoid this havoc which greatly worries the entire agricultural sector in the area, thousands of hectares of land that depend on the supply of the Trinità dam."

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