Elisa Moretto stands in front of the field ploughed earlier than planned.
he September sun setting over the expanses of the Po Delta colours the dry and burnt fields a bright yellow. Within them, the rice plant roots float in the little water left in the canals. Elisa Moretto has a historical tradition linked to this crop, as a family photo proudly hanging in her shop shows.
"The products we grow are found on land torn from the sea," she says. "So they smell and taste different from those grown far from it."
Elisa is the head of one of the 83,017 farms present in Veneto, a northeastern region of Italy. Her farm grows 46 hectares of five different rice crops and is located 20 km from the Delta. Rice is so dependent on water that the roots must be completely submerged to grow. In 2022, the suffocating sunlight and lack of rainfall have left the rice grains scorched, black and hollow.
In the Recovery and Resilience Plan (PNRR), which the Italian government is implementing thanks to Next Generation Eu funds, the word 'drought' recurs only three times. Supported by the previous Draghi government, it had allocated only 200 million funds against six billion in drought losses in 2022, demonstrating a detachment and lack of responsibility in tackling the crisis. ''The money allocated was for emergency interventions to get drinking water, but on the level of damage to agriculture, there is still nothing,'' says Elisa.
Cracked soil in a soy field.
With the new Meloni government taking office, the political promises have not erased uncertainties. Obsolete bureaucracy does not consider the urgency of an agricultural economy threatened by climate change and water scarcity. Thus, most of the work to overcome the crisis remains on hold for years, increasing the climate risk as time passes.
"The need for an immediate allocation for this type of infrastructure to be developed is very urgent, then the whole phase of planning will start, and the execution of the works, which will certainly take a few years to develop," confirms Carlo Salvan, president of Coldiretti Rovigo. But the land and farms have already been exposed to the problem, the danger, for too long.
Sunburnt rice ears.
The absence of water is not Elisa's only problem. Since her farm is located at the Po canal coastal end, she works in one of the areas most affected by the salt wedge. The concentration of salt left behind by the rising sea is now suffocating her fields. And if the salt remains on the ground, production will suffer in the years to come. 'My biggest fear is that the sea is taking the land back,' she says.
The rivulet of a canal irrigating the fields.
The Po River is a vital water resource in Italy, especially for workers in Veneto, where its 652 km course ends. Its Delta, a UNESCO site, is a fragile area as it lies below sea level. If at the beginning of the 20th century it was a swamp, today it is at risk of desertification. 'Never before has the wedge penetrated up to 40 km into the fields,' said Carlo Salvan. In spring, 9000 hectares had no fresh water for 70 days.
If there was water in the canals, it was too salty to be used on the farms for irrigation purposes.
To compensate for the lack of water, Elisa was forced to plough the fields earlier than planned in June, when diesel prices were rising due to the war in Ukraine. The harvest loss and the rising costs of diesel and pesticides absorbed much of her potential income. Caught between rising prices and deteriorating environmental conditions, Elisa harvested 900 quintals of rice compared to the planned 3600. The product is barely enough to sell in her small shop'. 'They keep telling us that the problem is the war and we must pay the bills,' she says. 'No one gives us concrete and tangible help to stop the mortgage payments or postpone the payment of products'.
Forms of support such as the suspension of loans and mortgage instalments are the farmers' one hope. 'But they only serve to give a breath of fresh air and do not solve things,' as Antonio Gottardo, president of Legacoop, says. In the long term, we need solutions that respond to a crisis looming on an unpredictable horizon.
Lucia La Presa rides her bike next to her burnt soy fields.
The climate crisis affecting the small Delta area is bringing out a new awareness in the workers: they are living in a condition of increasing vulnerability. Like Elisa, Lucia La Presa, a soy farmer, is frightened by debts and rising inflation. She is cut off from adequate subsidies, infrastructure, equipment and modern farming methods.
Lucia inherited the fields and farm in 1983. She has enough experience to know that, in farming, it takes years to rethink a solution when there is a problem. Her soy and corn fields occupy 20 hectares and are located 1 km from the river bank.
Before going out into her field, she lights a cigarette. Soy ears cling to her green dress as she walks over the craked soil. Around her, the burnt soy hides the few surviving green ears. ''If the soy plant is still alive, it only grows so far,'' she says. ''It's a problem because I don't know if it will mature.''
Lucia thinks of climate adaptation solutions that could prevent environmental problems: closing salt barriers in the valley, creating water reservoirs and assisted evolution technologies (Tea) that enable pathogen- and climate-resistant plants through genetic improvement.
None of these solutions is in place yet. While the European Commission is deciding whether to introduce Tea, salt and water basins are still at proposal level for Coldiretti Veneto and other consortia. A slow modernization is making the recovery process slower than climate impact’s pace. It has left Italy's economy and food security exposed to increasing risks.
Sale plan for La Presa farm products.
By 2022, Lucia has lost 38 per cent of her corn and soy and has to cope alone with the rising costs of the farm, still crowded by an affectionate clientele. She has faith in small daily gestures, such as reusing water from air conditioners.
"Without water, I have no idea what can survive," she says. "Predicting such a year was practically impossible."
Nevertheless, small gestures are not enough to survive the crisis when throughout the Delta area, necessary equipment is inaccessible, and soil and water quality is declining.
Burnt soybean ears.
'We know very well that the irrigation network for agricultural use is practically a sieve, says Ramona Magno, drought and desertification expert at CNR. This issue adds to this year's 50 per cent deficit in rainfall and snowfall. To cover the loss, "Italy will have to use every drop several times, change the irrigation systems that currently spray water, stop excessive building that makes the soil highly impermeable, and improve the irrigation network," she says.
Talking about solutions is challenging when projects lack funds. As Agenzia Interregionale per il fiume Po's Director Berselli states, the root of this problem is that 'the PNRR only finances existing projects, not their design. If you do not have assured funding, it is difficult to design a project out of a current issue'.
For this reason, many projects remain closed in the drawer for years, as explained by engineer Laurenti of Consorzio di Bonifica del Delta del Po. 'The first project idea we had is to build a barrier at the river mouth,' he says, explaining how, in this way, the water descending towards the sea is retained, and the one coming from the sea is blocked.
'A second idea is to make the canals larger,' to use the water stored when there is rain and snow shortage. While the second project requires a few months, the first one needs a planning period of 5 years. 'And it is clear that this is not enough because if we have 5 drought seasons, we cannot solve anything,' he notes.
Caterina Mancin and her mussel net suffocated by white algae.
The closer the salty water, the higher the damage and workers' frustration. The road along the Sacca degli Scardovari, at the far end of the Po Delta, is lined with huts built by the 1400 people fishing there. Caterina Mancin works in one of these alongside her husband. She is there most of the time and used to bring her daughters along to play when they were little.
Caught between the sea and the river, the Sacca gathers several mussel drums. Caterina’s ones are located at the end closest to the sea, suffering more from tropicalisation, rising temperatures and changes in the marine ecosystem.
Mussel fishing drums.
In 2022, Caterina lost 50 per cent of her fruit, killed by inadequate water conditions, which wiped out most of her profits. "We are invisible," she says. The water where she used to fish has created a hospitable ecosystem for alien species, such as the blue crab and a microscopic alga that attaches itself to the mollusc and deprives it of oxygen. ''These phenomena make fishing with traditional nets impossible,'' explains Antonio Gottardo.
Although prices have risen, allowing her to earn more than in 2021, production costs have also triplicated for Caterina. This situation is not recognised by the region, which only provides aid to those who have lost 30 per cent of the previous year's earnings. ''Every year, I ask myself whether it is worth continuing'' she says.
Fishing net with a few matured mussels.
These factors are delaying a systemic change, which addresses the climate crisis in its local, tangible effects. As the winter months turn out to be warmer and warmer, the insufficient funds made available by the Italian state and the slow modernization of infrastructure give way to more rapid changes. The abyssal barriers on the river branches cannot function due to the new hydraulic conditions. The majority of the infrastructure was built 30 years ago, today traditional fishing systems are ineffective. Thus, fishers and farmers have no profitable source of livelihood, but are still demanded to be resilient and use the last available drops of water to pay their mortgages.
As Antonio Gottardo notes: ''What we are doing is becoming resilient, that is, adapting to change''. It is not changing, but adapting to change. The need to plan the future in the face of climate collapse does not lie in reformism and adaptation but in a drastic transformation that starts with acknowledging it is happening on our doorstep.
Sacca degli Scardovari.