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‘Without farmers, Sicily as we know would not exist’: Drought takes its toll on crops and livestock

A donkey grazing while a downpour is about to come down in May, Vizzini, Province of Catania.
A donkey grazing while a downpour is about to come down in May, Vizzini, Province of Catania. Copyright Greta Ruffino/Euronews
Copyright Greta Ruffino/Euronews
By Greta Ruffino
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Italy declared a drought emergency in Sicily a couple of months ago, hitting farmers and breeders the hardest.

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The lack of rainfall is putting livestock farmers and agricultural producers, vital to Sicily's economy, in a difficult position.

“The scarcity of water has compromised the animals' ability to find the necessary water for their daily needs,” says Donatella Vanadia, a vet and owner of an agricultural company.

“Farms that have purchased water, along with collective expenses, not only face increased production costs but also expenses for the water supply for the animals. As a result, the physiological conditions of the animals themselves are being jeopardised by this catastrophe.”

Animal feed has also been hit hard. According to Vanadia, hay production will be reduced by 60 to 70 per cent this year.

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

“This will only lead to the closure of businesses, as the expenses we have incurred have not just multiplied, they have quadrupled,” Vanadia says.

Sicily’s olive oil production is at serious risk

The climate crisis has also affected agricultural producers.

In 2022, Italy was the second-largest global exporter of olive oil, after Spain, according to Unaprol (the consortium of Italian Olive Oil producers), exporting €62 million worth of olive oil that year. 

But, in the same year 30 million ancient olive trees were recorded as being abandoned due to climate change, leading to a significant increase in prices. 

Today conditions have worsened and, with the increasing drought, olive oil production is sharply declining.

“The first time I started the oil press of this company, we managed to produce 2,000 litres of oil, and we could even reach 3,000 at full capacity,” Tony Zappulla, an olive oil producer in Sicily, tells Euronews Green.

Olive trees, Belpasso, Province of Catania, May 2024.
Olive trees, Belpasso, Province of Catania, May 2024.Greta Ruffino/Euronews

“But last year's is one to forget throughout the [**Etna**](What are volcanic vortex rings? Mount Etna blows spectacular ‘smoke rings’ into the sky) territory. I managed to produce about 300 litres of oil, which, for a company, is consumed within the family.”

Climate change can also damage the already scarce harvest.

“During the summer, when temperatures reach almost 46 to 47 degrees, the next day there could even be a heavy rainstorm… And if you have a crop, if you have trees that are full of olives, you could arrive the next day and find a carpet of olives,” Zappulla says

“Or even the opposite. When it rains or high temperatures come, like what happened last July, all the olives, which were perfect, dried up and almost became mummified, ruining all the good qualities inside the olives,” he adds

Is the climate crisis or negligence to blame for Sicily’s drought?

Experts say both the climate crisis and negligence have contributed to the drought. In the Italian countryside, water for crops is stored in large tanks, but maintenance is not always adequate.

“We've lost a lot of water,” explains Professor Giuseppe Luigi Cirelli from the department of agriculture, food and environment at the University of Catania.

“The lack of interventions over the past 20-25 years has resulted in a significant loss of reservoir capacity. Even when we had water, in some cases, we were unable to distribute it because irrigation networks were missing or not adequate.”

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Cows drink from a reservoir, Caltanissetta, Sicily.
Cows drink from a reservoir, Caltanissetta, Sicily.CIA

Last 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.

“Unfortunately, there's nothing that can compensate for the damage to farmers; the damages confirmed today exceed €1 billion. We believe that politics, after these European elections, must intervene to ensure serious compensations and not just regulations that remain on paper,” Scardino says.

“And then, farmers receive nothing. The farmer is the one who safeguards the environment, who also carries out environmental protection and defends the territory. Without farmers, there is desertification, there are fires, and Sicily as we know it would no longer exist.”

 

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