The fields are dying of thirst

04 May 2023

The word drought has become more and more commonly spoken in recent months, as the climate emergency deepens. We discuss the crisis with Francesca Greco, international expert in water and food politics.

We might have imagined it to be an infinite resource. Richer nations have never confronted the water issue seriously, limiting themselves to only the most essential humanitarian interventions where drought led to famine in Africa when those images of crack earth and famine still seemed so far away.

But those images are much closer today than we might like to admit. While there are 100 million people suffering from drought in East Africa, two-thirds of Europe battled with drought conditions in 2022, making it the driest year in five centuries. The millions of migrants who have been forced to abandon their homelands because drought has made farming too difficult bear witness, as do those whose lands have been inundated by rising waters, or destroyed by wars over water.

The increasing temperatures are global, causing drought and water stress in the Global North, including Italy. We’re now beginning to understand the links between water, food and energy, and how essential they are for the life of a community. And we’re beginning to understand just how vulnerable we are.

Drought spreads

Francesca Greco

In the last two decades the quantity of freshwater stored within and above the Earth’s surface, including humidity in the soil, snow and ice, has decreased by 1cm a year globally, with enormous consequences for water security. As Francesca Greco explains: “We need to distinguish between weather events and climatic events. The climatic trend as defined by the IPCC leaves the door open to three possible future scenarios, according to the actions we take as a species today.”

“The waves of rain and snow recorded over the Easter period in Italy were not enough to change the climatic scenario, though they were a weather relief. Since 2020 we have officially been in a water crisis. What we can expect is that every summer, no matter how hot, will turn out to be in perspective the coolest summer we will have experienced … Even past summers, recorded as the hottest in the country in recent decades to date, will always be better than those to come.”

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The water crisis is one of the many faces of the climate crisis, which is an increasingly serious emergency whose effects are being felt wider and further every year. How we can manage our water better, and in the best case scenario, reverse the losses we’ve brought upon ourselves?

Francesca Greco, an international expert on water and food policy, is among the speakers. She has worked with the UN and environmental NGOs in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and Europe, and regularly lectures on Water Policy and Water Diplomacy at ISPI and the University of Gastronomic Sciences. A Marie Curie European researcher at the University of Bergamo, Greco is currently working in Cyprus with the Water Is One project that promotes water cooperation and awareness of water issues in Cyprus.

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But a change of course is still possible: “For a complete reversal, saving water by large users and citizens and changing infrastructure even within homes are urgent necessities. In Italy, we flush with potable water: in sub-Saharan Africa or the Middle East this would make us look ridiculous. In addition to this, repairing water pipes outside homes and maximizing the reuse of city wastewater are other essential measures. A national plan for restoring groundwater must also be undertaken.”

Daily solutions and political decisions

Photo: Imani / Unsplash

Greco continues: “The water crisis must be addressed in a systemic and multidisciplinary way, protecting wetlands and fragile environments, agriculture, infrastructure, ecology. We also need a national analysis of who is using the water we have, and how. Whether this is sustainable or not. Who benefits from it? Who does the water economy create income for? Strategic choices at the national level would likely bring more income to Italian farmers and less enrichment for multinational corporations and large retailers.”

While the greatest responsibility for addressing the drought issue lies in the hands of nations and multinational corporations, we must not forget that everyone can make a difference. As Greco says: “I believe a lot in everyday actions, but I believe even more in the action of public institutions. If the waste disposal system in my city does not work I can’t have any impact on the final result, no matter how much I differentiate my waste. In the same way, if 40% of the water that comes to my house has already been lost in municipal pipes, what impact can my final water savings as a citizen have?”

“Individuals must be motivated to enact change, and institutions owe us that stimulus. Italians consume more than 200 liters per day of running (domestic) water a day, and six-thousand more are used to create the goods we consume, primarily food. Clearly focusing on our lifestyle and our food has a greater impact than the liters saved in turning off the faucet when we brush our teeth, but, mind you, that should always be done too.”

There are some issues on which the individual citizen is powerless: “Italy still has a long way to go and is constantly sanctioned by Europe for its inadequate wastewater treatment. Our management of sewage discharge is the main danger to the sea. Here, too, individual citizens can do very little. I cannot build a sewage treatment plant on my own. You need the State, you need responsibility from those who manage the industry as well.”

Seas and fresh waters

Ph Anton Maksimov / Unsplash

The seas are a fundamental part of the climate. “The sea is where all the water goes, even the untreated water from our cities. The seas and oceans are our lungs, and they make our life on Earth possible. The problem is that until a few years ago no one talked about them and there was no environmental awareness of their importance. But now we can no longer ignore it. On a personal level, we should make the fight against plastics and microplastics a top priority, along with the fight for fisheries that do not destroy marine biodiversity. Again: change from the bottom up is possible, but without big regulations from the top down, it doesn’t work. Certain microplastics just shouldn’t be produced anymore.”

Fresh water is the great mystery of our planet. “What we do know is that it moves through a precise and constant cycle, and not decrease its volume over time. The real problem is that the part that is essential to us, the fresh part, is becoming more and more polluted and less usable. Fresh water on Earth has the great limitation of not being readily available where we need it: it is not a commodity we can dispose of safely and efficiently. Unless we equip ourselves in time to deal with droughts and extreme water events, we will see large amounts of water run off into the sea without the ability to be stored, we will see large destructive floods, as well as growing desertification where we once had cultivated fields. In Bangladesh, it is already happening.”

In Bangladesh, in fact, sea waters are rising at more than twice the world average, and every year, between 30% to 50% of the entire country is flooded by seawater. As Greco concludes: “So many deaths could be avoided if just 1%of the world’s GDP were dedicated to water, to managing climate extremes and insulating ourselves against them, as well as to preventing deaths caused by extreme water events. That’s a calculation made by the United Nations.”

by Valter Musso,

Slow Fish 2023 is organized by Slow Food and the Liguria Region, with the support of the City of Genoa. We’re in the Porto Antico of Genoa from June 1-4. Sign up to the Slow Food newsletter for the latest updates. #SlowFish2023

Cover image by Radhey Khandelwal / Unsplash

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