Investigation Climate change in Southern Europe | Sicily
Blufi’s dam, abandoned for about 30 years, in the foothills of Madonie mountain range | Photo: Davide Mancini

In a few decades, Sicily will look like Tunisia – or Southeast Asia

How altered rainfall patterns and crumbling water infrastructure will reshape Sicily – if no action is taken. Between extreme drought and flash floods, the Mediterranean is looking unprepared in the face of a new climate.

Published on 25 November 2021 at 13:32
Blufi’s dam, abandoned for about 30 years, in the foothills of Madonie mountain range | Photo: Davide Mancini

“If this continues, in a few decades half of Sicily will look exactly like Tunisia. With the difference that in Tunisia farmers have been living with that climate for centuries, while here they have not.” Christian Mulder, Professor of Climate Change and Desertification at the University of Catania, has been working on climate change in the Mediterranean for decades. When I met him in Piazza dell'Università in Catania in September 2021, we talked about droughts that are becoming more intense every year in Sicily, and the substantial rise in temperatures. In Syracuse, less than 70 kilometres away, last summer saw the highest temperature ever recorded in Europe: 48.8°C.

Sicily is at the centre of a warming trend in the Mediterranean, and 70 percent of its territory is at risk of desertification. Between periods of drought and worsening heat waves, and the increasing frequency of extreme rainfall phenomena such as flash floods that carry away layers of fertile soil, the island's ecosystem is changing rapidly. On one hand, the heating of its climate, which is already allowing the cultivation of tropical fruit species such as mangoes, avocados and, more recently, coffee. On the other hand, water shortages are threatening to make the land irreversibly arid. This latter trend involves many areas that are productive today, in the central and southern part of the island, but which are under ever worse water stress each year.

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  3. In a few decades, Sicily will look like Tunisia – or Southeast Asia

Moreover, Sicily is particularly exposed - with its 1,600 kilometres of coastline – to the so-called Mediterranean hurricanes, or medicane. These are a type of cyclone that is unusual for the Mediterranean sea in their level of intensity. They often form in the autumn, when rain normally begins to alleviate the dry summers typical of this climate. As extreme events that Mediterranean countries are not at all prepared for, they accelerate the process of desertification as flash floods wash away layers of fertile soil that took centuries to form.

Flash flood in main road accessing Augusta, Syracuse, due to medicane Apollo. The harbour city was cut off for several hours. | Photo: Davide Mancini

The eastern part of Sicily has historically been a very fertile area. Thanks to the volcano Etna, the soil is full of nutrients and minerals, and farming has continued uninterruptedly for millennia. Farmers on Etna’s slopes benefit from its 3,300-metre altitude, the water from its snowfields, and its underground aquifers that recharge regularly.

It is here that many tropical crops can now be found, as well as the traditional vineyards and pistachio plantations. Etna's water veins do not reach more than a few kilometres, however. The level of the aquifers further out is dropping so much that in some cases the electricity to run the well pumps is so expensive relative to the earnings from the harvest that the pumps are not being used. 

Farmers in the Catania Plain are experiencing increasingly long periods of drought. In the middle of August’s drought and with maximum temperatures around 47°C, some of them had not seen any water coming from the grid for months, and decided to organise themselves. In a few weeks the Comitato Spontaneo degli Agricoltori della Piana di Catania (Spontaneous Committee of Farmers of the Plain of Catania) reached 700 members and started to put pressure on the institutions directly, without the help of unions. ”This summer, those who had water in their own reservoirs could make it, others lost entire harvests”, says Teresa Cristallo, who runs a farm with her husband Vincenzo.

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Together they were among the founders of the committee. I met them and other members, all farmers. In their area the famous Sicilian blood oranges grow, and many plantations might have a reduced harvest in December. In some cases in August, the oranges dried out so much that their plants aborted them, or their growth stalled. In both cases the oranges were made unsaleable.

Signs of degradation on the water grid near Catania Plain’s orange tree plantations. | Photo: Davide Mancini

The Committee has no doubt about the crux of the problem: the decades-long mismanagement by the Consorzi di Bonifica, the local authorities responsible for the grid bringing water to the fields. Sicily is the Italian region with the highest water loss due to inefficient or shabby infrastructure. More than 50% of useful water is lost in a grid that is now considered a sieve. Farmers on the plain are furious at having to pay each year a water bill that does not reflect the actual amount of water that reaches them through the channels. They continue to pay in proportion to the size of their land, without knowing when and how much water will arrive from the grid.

The latest bitter news for Sicilian farmers is that none of the 31 projects presented by the region of Sicily has been considered eligible for funds from Italy’s National Recovery and Resilience Plan, made available in response to the Covid-19 crisis. Five projects concerned the Plain of Catania, and four out of five of those involved the water grid. The projects were submitted by various entities, including for many the Consorzi di Bonifica, already responsible for mismanaging the crumbling infrastructure.

Via Etnea, in the city centre of Catania, already hit by a flood some days earlier,  is bracing for medicane Apollo. | Photo: Davide Mancini

None of the projects met the minimum requirements for the funds. "The consortium is an extremely politicised body that has lacked efficiency for too long. It has been delegated to special commissioners since it was set up thirty years ago, and we would like it to be run by farmers instead, and not by commissioners decided by politicians in exchange of votes" says Gabriele Bellamacina, president of the Committee.

Apart from water distribution, the situation of the dams in inland Sicily  is the subject of much controversy. The existing dams are poorly maintained, and their minimum levels keep falling each summer. This year, the lake at the Pozzillo dam was able to supply less than half the water needed locally, while the Sciaguana dam has dried up entirely due to structural leaks that have been known about for years. Then there are two dams where construction was started 30 years ago and never completed. Their specific purpose was to provide water for agricultural land during periods of drought in central and eastern Sicily. 

Farmers on the plain are furious at having to pay each year a water bill that does not reflect the actual amount of water that reaches them through the channels

Construction on the Blufi dam began in 1989. The Pietrarossa dam, begun in 1988 and 95% complete, could solve part of the water problem in the Catania Plain, according to local farmers. Both projects are now likely to be completed, at the behest of the right-wing governor, Nello Musumeci, who has pushed for work to resume. But according to the environmental group Legambiente, the two projects are today obsolete. In the words of Gianfranco Zanna, president of Legambiente Sicilia, ”the Blufi dam does not contain the expected millions of cubic metres of water, while the top spillway has already been built at a level that can never be reached”.

Zanna explains that the dam is located near the head of the Imera river, which originates in the Madonie National Park and is today almost dry for ten months of the year. As for the Pietrarossa dam, the construction was interrupted due to an archaeological discovery at the excavation site, which is why Legambiente is opposed to its completion. The group says that, instead of investing further millions in outdated projects, it would make more sense to maintain the existing ones.

As droughts in the Mediterranean get longer and longer, the rains are becoming increasingly intense and concentrated in autumn, often creating damage and further losses for agriculture. At the end of October, Catania and the surrounding areas were hit by unprecedented flooding, due to the formation of a cyclone that took the characteristics of a Mediterranean hurricane, or medicane. Named 'Apollo', it flooded the city's streets. In one of many videos taken by the inhabitants, the tables of the café where I had met Professor Mulder a month earlier, were shown swept away by the floodwater.

In Catania, six months’ worth of average annual rainfall was recorded in 72 hours. Perhaps counter-intuitively, such a quantity of water is a huge loss for Sicily’s environment and agriculture, as Professor Mulder explains: “The large amount of water due to cyclone Apollo further accelerates desertification, because what matters is the seasonal distribution of rain. A six-month rainfall concentrated in a few minutes only leads to extreme drought once the water is lost in the sea”.

Downstream of Blufi’s dam. | Photo: Davide Mancini

One way to slow down desertification and adapt to the inexorable changes in the Mediterranean climate is to retain as much water as possible in the soil and in reservoirs, keeping structural losses to the minimum. At present the condition of Sicily’s water infrastructure, along with the change in rainfall patterns, is bringing the desertification projections ever closer to reality. While little can be done to affect rainfall, much improvement is possible in water infrastructure and management, in response to extraordinary events that will become the norm. 

The alternative is an inexorable, permanent change in the landscape for a large part of Sicily. This would mean an economic and social earthquake for Sicilians, and for a farming economy that is today a major producer for both Italy and Europe.


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