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The region responsible for 40% of Italy's agriculture faces worst drought in 70 years

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Northern Italy is experiencing its worst drought in more than 70 years. Rivers and aquifers are drying up there. And the problem is especially concerning in the Po Valley, which is responsible for 40% of Italy's agricultural output. Adam Raney reports from central Italy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAND CRUNCHING)

ADAM RANEY, BYLINE: The sound of footsteps on sand - not in the desert or on a beach, but in the middle of Italy's longest and most important river, the Po. Walking out into a riverbed usually covered by flowing water, Meuccio Berselli, who heads the Po River Basin Authority, says he's never experienced anything like this in his lifetime.

MEUCCIO BERSELLI: (Through interpreter) River flow right now is one-sixth the normal level. We haven't seen such a crisis in 70 years. Since we started keeping scientific records here, it's never been so low.

RANEY: The Po River basin provides water to northern Italy's agricultural heartland. The drought that extends across much of Italy threatens to wipe out 30% of national agricultural output this year. Calamitous events like this are becoming more the norm in Italy - increasingly touched, like the rest of the world, by climate change. Last summer, a record-shattering 1,400 wildfires raged across the country. There was a spike in tornadoes and hailstorms. Farming, though, is where the brunt of the problem is felt most.

LORENZO BAZZANA: (Through interpreter) There are events that were never seen in the past that are becoming common now.

RANEY: That's economist Lorenzo Bazzana with Coldiretti, Italy's largest agricultural association. He says farmers have suffered more than $14.5 billion in losses due to extreme weather over the last decade.

BAZZANA: (Through interpreter) There are insurance companies that no longer want to cover certain risks or natural disasters, or they charge very high premiums. The risk then for farmers is that their costs will be so high they won't be able to cover damages in the face of so many calamities.

RANEY: In addition to the Po, rivers like the iconic Tiber are 50% below average levels right now. Rome's surrounding Lazio region is considering water rationing.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRONE BUZZING)

RANEY: Some growers have gone high tech to adapt to climate change. Drones take spectral images of Tonino Casciani's vineyards along the Tiber an hour north of Rome. The data they help gather let him know how often and how much to water his delicate vines.

TONINO CASCIANI: (Through interpreter) With the drone and sensors, you can cut water usage by 50% because you only water at the moment you need to.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER DRIPPING)

RANEY: Along his vines, rather than the rush of water, you hear the steady, slow drip of targeted irrigation.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRASS CRUNCHING)

RANEY: Walking across his fields, Casciani tells me how his family has cultivated olives and wine grapes here for generations. He doesn't want to be the last one in the family business.

CASCIANI: (Through interpreter) You get the feeling of all the people here before you. You have to keep the traditions because this place has always been suited for wine.

RANEY: Which means there's only one choice.

CASCIANI: (Through interpreter) Adapt - you always have to adapt. You must move forward and look for new ways to be able not to give up on this land, this heritage that we've had for thousands of years. So you have to carry on with it.

RANEY: Casciani is looking to adapt even more. The most recent vineyard he planted was last year in Norway. For NPR News, I'm Adam Raney in Rome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adam Raney
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