Pandino, Italy – In northern Italy’s agricultural heartland, Antonella Ferri is inspecting corn fields that should have grown taller than her. But this year, amid the worst drought in 70 years, the stunted stalks turned yellow and withered.
“There’s nothing left to be saved,” the 56-year-old tells Al Jazeera in the town of Pandino, southeast of Milan, where she runs a farm that has produced milk for the Italian dairy industry for more than a century. “Even if water comes, it’s all ruined.”
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Last week, the boot-shaped peninsula declared a state of emergency in five of its normally lush northern regions, with Italy’s farmers’ confederation Coldiretti estimating three billion euro ($3bn) worth of damage to agriculture.
Italy’s agriculture ministry warned the country’s parliament on Wednesday that a third of the national agricultural output was at risk, adding that the situation would get worse in years to come.
Meagre Alpine snowfall and almost no precipitation in spring months plunged Italy’s northern lakes and rivers to their minimum historical level.
Warmer winter temperatures also contributed to the rapid melting of snowcaps, causing the collapse of a glacier in the Dolomites that killed at least 10 hikers earlier this month.
The crisis, which Prime Minister Mario Draghi said was “undoubtedly” linked to climate change, came amid rising grain prices linked to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Climate change has also threatened the hydropower system, adding to Italy’s energy woes as it disinvested from the Russian gas and exacerbating tensions around the use of the scarce resource.
Competition over water
“Competition over water has always been there, but this year, it is particularly fierce,” Paolo Micheletti, director of the DUNAS water consortium in Lombardy, told Al Jazeera.
In the past few weeks, Lombardy’s regional authority negotiated three separate agreements with hydropower companies managing Alpine reservoirs – whose water flows into lakes and then snakes southwards through to the rivers – to guarantee enough water for agriculture.
Italy’s north is responsible for 40 percent of Italy’s agricultural output, which the drought risks slashing in half. But it is also crucial for hydroelectric power, which accounts for a similar share of the national renewable energy production.
Earlier this year, the European Drought Observatory (EDO), a service run by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, found the drought had caused the stored energy value in reservoirs to be at 27.2 percent of the total storage capacity – below the minimum level recorded since monitoring begun in 1970.
According to DUNAS, despite the negotiations with hydroelectric companies and the precedence awarded to agriculture over energy production by the Italian legislation, discharges have remained below the agreed levels.
Meanwhile, regions further downstream the Adda river – Italy’s fourth longest – are also demanding a share of water, which Lombardy’s water consortium has said it cannot afford to give.
“It’s the same as asking us to shut down our activities,” Micheletti said.
No water for crops
The severity of the drought became apparent in April, when farmers in the Padanian plain readied themselves for the season’s first irrigation.
At the time, Italy’s picturesque Lake Como and most of Italy’s northern water basins were recording minimum historical level, about 30cm (11 inches) below the baseline.
Raffaele Erba, member of the regional council of Lombardy, was quoted by local media as saying, “While climate change is putting a strain on the Como Lake, on the other hand, the dams [in the Alpine region] are not helping the already dire situation.”
The Italian government allocated 36.5 million euros ($36.5m) in emergency aid to be divided among five regional institutions, but it could take years before it is distributed.
Meanwhile, farmers were left to face the stark choice between making new financial investments to save the salvageable or watch their crops go to waste.
In Pandino, the fields Ferri habitually cultivated to feed her 600 milk-producing cattle were left under the scorching sun for weeks until water trickled in again in late May.
Faced with the prospect of losing their crops, the family decided to buy a new tractor and a pump to extract groundwater at an additional 180 euros ($180) per hectare in fuel expenses alone, saving about half of the production.
“This is an additional cost for us but ultimately, it’s also a cost for the consumer,” Ferri says.
The European Milk Board (EMB) warned in May that the “extreme rise” in costs of energy, fertilisers and feed was threatening the survival of dairy farmers across the continent.
Mario Boggini, adviser at Milan’s Grain Association, told Al Jazeera that farmers who lost crops to the drought would be forced to buy animal feed on the market at a time when quantities were low and prices exorbitantly high due to speculation and stockpiling.
“China is known to be hoarding large quantities of grain,” Boggini said. In addition to that, “Middle Eastern companies bought large quantities of Italian feed even before the war in Ukraine began, so now there is a severe shortage on the market.”
Drought across Europe
Italy’s situation is not an isolated one. EDO, Europe’s drought observatory, reported a similar situation across the continent due to an extreme lack of precipitation.
Hydropower storage levels in April were at their lowest levels since 2015 in Spain, Portugal and Italy, which the observatory said would drive up energy prices already at a record-breaking high.
The European Union is currently aiming to scale up renewable energy as part of a package of measures to accelerate its independence from Russian fossil fuels and respond to the climate crisis.
But with severe droughts upending agricultural production, more countries may have to choose between prioritising energy production or sending food commodity prices soaring.
Riccardo Crotti, the president of Lombardy’s farmers’ confederation Confagricoltura, said governments cannot afford to make the wrong choice.
“What will we do with energy if we don’t have enough to eat?” Crotti told Al Jazeera. “Some thought the problem of the future would be the availability of oil, but they were wrong. It’s the availability of food.”
Average milk prices in Europe increased from about 32 cents per litre ($1.20 per gallon) in June 2020 to about 48 cents per litre ($1.81 per gallon) in June 2022, according to the European Commission.
Crotti said the effects of the drought will be felt by consumers starting in September, when he expects the price of milk to increase again.
For farmers, the future without predictable water resources and profit margins looks bleak.
“People have a romanticised idea of agriculture, but it does not correspond to reality,” Ferri said while reflecting on the life ahead for her two sons, who will inherit the family business.
“It’s hard work and it eats up your life, but at least we used to make a living out of it. Now, what are we getting in return?”