AFP, published on Saturday, July 23, 2022 at 12:19 pm
The roar of Dario Vicini’s motorcycle broke the silence. Owner of Stella farm, he crossed his field to see the magnitude of the damage caused by the drought. His fields are barren, on sandy soil, the rice stalks are dead.
“Normally, I can’t even cross the field with my motorcycle. At this time of the year, the crops must be up to my knees and the rice fields are flooded. The water needed to irrigate them has not yet arrived,” he explained.
The farm “Stella”, located in the village of Zeme located on the Po plain 70 km southwest of Milan, is part of the “golden triangle” of Italian rice fields, which stretches from Pavia in Lombardy to Vercelli and Novare in Piedmont, the main rice production region in Europe.
“The last rain worthy of the name started in December and we saw a little snow in the mountains. This is the fault of climate change”, said the 58-year-old rice farmer, who estimates that his income has collapsed of “80 to 90% “.
“If there is no water, the loss of my turnover can reach 100%”, fulminates one of the rice farmers from the neighboring farms, Enrico Sedino.
The dry ground is cracked, the rice stalks, covered with a fine layer of dust, are rickety. The small irrigation canals that run along the fields are dry, or nearly so. The waters of the Po, at a historically low level, only come in trickles.
– Lunar landscape –
“Not only the harvest was hit, but the entire ecosystem was withered,” complained Massimo Saronni, mayor of Zeme and a rice farmer for 30 years.
In the past, the rice fields resounded with the chirping of crickets, the croaking of frogs and clouds of dragonflies filled the fields. Gray heron and white ibis feed on insects there.
From now on, “to find yourself in a countryside with such a heavy silence, it’s depressing, you have the impression of being on the moon!”, he testifies.
If the 50 hectares of Dario Vicini are irrigated by the Canal Cavour that brings water to the Po, the other rice fields in the province of Pavia are fed by Lake Maggiore or Lake Como.
But the Lombardy region warned that the reserves of the lakes could run out by the end of July, which spelled “the end of water for agriculture”.
Faced with the worst drought in 70 years, Rome declared a state of emergency in early July in five regions (Emilia-Romagna, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Lombardy, Veneto and Piedmont), four of it was watered by the Po.
“Unfortunately, the farmer is forced to abandon some farms to the detriment of others, the same as the doctor who chooses those who have a chance to be saved during the Covid-19 pandemic”, notes bitterly, Massimo Saronni.
– “Apocalyptic situation” –
About sixty kilometers east of Zeme, at the confluence between the Ticino and Po rivers, the white and blue boats are stuck on a sandbar, in the middle of a stagnant pool of water. Tired of the stifling heat, some swimmers ventured into the brackish water of the river which sank 3.3 meters below their usual level in this area.
Italy has 220,000 hectares of rice fields, divided into more than 4,000 farms. About 1.5 million tons of rice is produced annually, 60% of which is exported. Among the more than 200 varieties are the famous Carnaroli, Arborio, Roma or Baldo, essential for the preparation of typical risotto dishes.
In the country of “pasta”, the consumption of rice increased during the confinements due to the pandemic. But now, “we risk a shortage of rice in Italy”, warns Stefano Greppi, president of the Coldiretti agricultural union in Pavia.
“The situation is desperate, it can’t be called apocalyptic, because there is not enough water needed to irrigate the rice fields”, lamented this farmer.
“The economic damage is incalculable, it is millions of millions of euros,” he said. “If there is no harvest this year, there is a risk that many businesses will go out of business or go bankrupt.”