Italian parmesan producers fear for the future as water levels in the Po River fall

The “Big River”, as you know, plays an integral role in the history of the country. Before bridges were built, its deep waters protected civilizations on either side from invaders who could not cross.

In the years that followed, cities and businesses sprang up along its banks, using the water for hydropower, transportation, and irrigation. In parts of the Po River, processing plants turn the muddy river into drinking water.

The Pos are fed by winter snows in the Alps and heavy rains in the spring, which often lead to devastating floods. In a cafe on the banks of the river, near the city of Mantova, a measuring ruler on the wall shows how high the water has risen. In 1951, he nearly hit the roof.

But in 2022, things are very different. An unusually dry winter meant that snowmelt was sparse and spring rains were only sporadic, leading to the worst drought in Italy’s northern regions in more than 70 years, the regional agency for the Po River confirmed.

As a result, according to the European Space Agency, the water level in Po is reaching an all-time low. Animation from the agency’s Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite mission shows the river “significantly shrinking” between June 2020 and June 2022.

And this is a big problem for the millions of people who depend on Po for their livelihood. The salinization of the Adriatic Sea has begun to turn its fresh water into a poison unsuitable for crops. Recent tests show that the salt water is more than 20 kilometers (12 miles) below the land, and as the river sinks lower, the sea will continue to fill the void.

Massimiliano Fazzini, head of climate risk at the Italian Society for Environmental Geology, says that in the current hydrological year, which began on December 1, in the Po basin, water deficits range from 45% to 70% in some areas.

“Normally I’m never a pessimist or an alarmist, but this time we have to be an alarmist,” he told CNN, citing the difference in average snowfall from 7.5 meters (24.6 feet) in normal years to 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) this year. coupled with rising temperatures, which means that the reservoirs that may be available in a dry year are not filled. “The situation is critical and can only get worse,” he said.

Dairy farmer Simone Minelli's milk is used to make the real local Parmigiano-Reggiano Parmesan cheese.

At Simone Minelli’s dairy farm on the banks of a river near Mantua, the outlook is bleak. Water is an integral part of the operation to feed his herd of 300 Friesian cattle, he told CNN.

Its milk cows produce 30 liters (6.6 gallons) of milk per day, which is turned into the authentic regional parmesan cheese Parmigiano Reggiano. If each of his cows doesn’t drink 100 to 150 liters (22 to 33 gallons) of water a day, or overheats, the milk won’t meet the exacting standards and the cheese won’t get the coveted seal of approval.

But more than the water in their troughs, what worries them is what they will eat. Minelli mainly uses water from the Po River to irrigate crops to feed his livestock. He showed CNN a soybean field that hasn’t been irrigated and is suffering from small wilted plants that won’t feed his livestock.

He is concerned about water restrictions as he watches Ro’s levels drop even further and where he can even buy feed if other farmers are suffering the same way. “I’m very worried, we take it day by day,” he said. “If you don’t have enough food to feed your cattle, you will have to cut back,” he said, referring to the number of cows in his herd.

Simone Minelli worries about how he will feed his herd of 300 Friesian cattle.

At the nearby Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium, his milk is blended with that of 20 other dairy farmers to produce 52,000 rounds of the coveted cheese each year. If the milk dries out, the cheese will fail.

Further up the Ada River, Georgie showed CNN a pumping station run by a consortium she ran for 20 years. The consortium had to pay to remove sand from the riverbed to keep the pumps from clogging, she said, and added one meter (3.3 feet) of pipe to further lower the pumps if water levels continued to fall. Water from the pumping station feeds a maze of canals leading to irrigation hubs and processing plants.

The consortium’s 150,000 customers are still getting water, but looking at the Po level, Georgie says he’s worried about the future. “The last time the river was low was in 2003,” she told CNN. “This time it’s much, much worse. No rain, no snow and high temperatures,” she said. “This creates the famous perfect storm. We are in an extreme crisis.”

The production of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese can be seen at a site near Mantua.
If there is no rain – and no significant rain is predicted in the near future – things will only get worse. In Milan, the financial center of Italy, the mayor ordered turned off all decorative fountains, banned washing personal vehicles or watering gardens and lawns.

In the small town of Castenaso, near Bologna, barbers and barbers are reportedly banned from washing customers’ hair twice in an attempt to save water until supplies there run out.

Meanwhile, a debilitating heat wave has gripped much of southern Italy since May.

A woman stands on the bed of the Po River next to the Ponte della Becca (Becca Bridge) in Linarolo, near Pavia, Italy, on June 27, 2022.
Scientists call the Mediterranean hotbed of climate crisis. The human-caused crisis has brought heat here more often and intense, which led to a decrease in the amount of precipitation in summer. Temperatures are expected to be 20-50% warmer than the global average, and droughts here will worsen by mid-century, even if the world cuts greenhouse gas emissions. If emissions continue at very high levels, droughts and wildfires will become so severe that further agriculture will be difficult. Tourism will also become less attractive.

Italy is a net food exporter, supplying commodities such as wheat to many developing countries. The drought here only exacerbates the food crisis, which is acutely felt in the poorer parts of the world. And the Po River is of great importance to Italians.

The writer Tobias Jones, whose book Po is the Elegy of Italy’s Longest River traces the history of the river, traced the entire length of the river to understand its meaning. He says that the Po is to Italy what the Thames is to London or the Mississippi is to the United States.

“River flooding has been a concern for centuries, but climate change has left the river now in danger of drying up,” he told CNN.

“This is not just a river, it is part of the national mentality. Cities along it attract tourists and industry. It was almost a moat for central Italy, which protected it from invaders. Now she is under threat and no one knows what to do to save him.”

Angela Dewan of CNN and Chad Myers contributed to this report.