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‘The impact is enormous’: Farmers in Sicily struggle to survive amid worst drought in 30 years

Dam, Caltanissetta, Sicily.
Dam, Caltanissetta, Sicily. Copyright CIA
Copyright CIA
By Greta Ruffino
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Farmers' losses exceed €1 billion, according to a consortium.


In the last six months of 2023, only 150 millimetres of rain fell on Sicily, the Italian island that is twice the size of some countries.

A few months later, the region's government declared a state of emergency due to the drought. Experts warned it could be the third worst water crisis the island has ever seen.

With swathes of the population, and the economy, reliant on agriculture, a lack of water is has widespread consequences.

Climate change is leaving many parts of southern Europe in drought - is it solely to blame for Sicily's water crisis? Or is the chronic lack of funding southern Italy has received from the national government the problem?

Farmers in Sicily struggle to feed their animals

Donatella Vanadia, a vet and owner of an agricultural company, has seen how hay production - vital feed for cattle - has been severely curtailed by the drought.

"I think the production [of hay] will be no more than 30 or 40 per cent,' she tells Euronews Green.

Harvesting weeds to make hay is also difficult given the unpredictability of spring rains - the climate crisis is causing unusual weather patterns all over Europe.

The water shortages could result in cows producing less milk, less offspring, and, in extreme cases, mean more animals being sent to slaughter.

"The impact is enormous, compounded by that of previous years. This also affects the animals' products, as they do not have the right physiological conditions. It's a genuine impending catastrophe,' Vanadia adds.

Even when there is rain, the reservoirs can't store it

In Sicily, drinking water is typically extracted from aquifers, underground layers of rock that contain water, while water for crops is stored in large tanks that were built after World War II. 

Both systems rely on the abundant winter rainfall that was once common, now increasingly scarce.

"Since 2003, and worsening in recent years, Sicily has seen rainfall reductions of over 40 per cent, resulting in a significant decline in water collection by the main supply reservoirs, especially impacting distribution," Professor of the Department of Agriculture, Food and Environment at the University of Catania, Giuseppe Luigi Cirelli, explains.

"Add to this, the lack of maintenance of the irrigation network over the last 25 years which has resulted in significant lower reservoir capacity, even when we had water," Cirelli says.

Dam, Caltanissetta, Sicily.
Dam, Caltanissetta, Sicily.CIA

Compounding the problem, more people now live in the area of Catania, Sicily's second largest city after the capital Palermo.

The lowering of the water table due to the climate crisis has gradually made it more difficult for water to infiltrate into the aquifers, resulting in a decrease in water destined to become drinking water, Cirelli explains.


A lack of cooperation over management of vital resources

An additional reason experts attribute to the lack of interventions and the lowering of water levels is the fragmented management of water systems, involving multiple entities, which complicates matters.

"We need to transition from fragmented management to a centralised approach that consolidates investments and adopts an organic understanding of the territory," Antonio Coniglio, director of Acoset, a water distribution and sewage management company in Catania, tells Euronews Green.

"It's evident that in other parts of Italy, the issue has been addressed, and losses have been reduced to less than 50 per cent due to centralised management and investments."

According to Coniglio, 40 years of neglect has resulted in a 75 per cent loss of water. This could lead to unavoidable water restrictions, meaning water is unavailable at certain times of day.

Cows grazing, Vizzini, Province of Catania, May 2024.
Cows grazing, Vizzini, Province of Catania, May 2024.Greta Ruffino/Euronews

Carrying on the family farming business doesn't feel sustainable in Sicily

Farming is in the blood of many young Sicilians and they are keen to continue to grow on the land here.

But the water crisis is driving some young farmers to close their businesses and leave Sicily, as Riccardo Randello, president of AGIA Sicily (Association of Young Agricultural Entrepreneurs), explains.

"Supply chains are suffering greatly and production is down. From citrus fruits to the olive oil industry to grain production, virtually all Mediterranean crops are experiencing the impact of this drought," he says.

"I prefer to call it a water crisis because attributing it solely to climate change is inaccurate. Today, the crisis is comprehensive and severe, necessitating strong action from governments.

The grass doesn't grow higher than a few inches. Vizzini, Province of Catania, May 2024.
The grass doesn't grow higher than a few inches. Vizzini, Province of Catania, May 2024.Greta Ruffino/Euronews

How is Italy's government trying to avert the crisis?

This month, the Italian government allocated an initial €20 million for Sicily to address the regional state of emergency caused by the drought.

For Graziano Scardino, the president of the Italian Farmers Confederation Sicily, the funds are just the tip of the iceberg.

"As of today, unfortunately, the state of emergency and even what is outlined in the regional plan are completely insufficient,' he says.

"Sadly, there is nothing that can compensate for the farmers' losses; the damages verified today exceed one billion euros. We believe that, after the European elections, politics must intervene to ensure serious compensation measures and not just regulations that remain on paper."

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