“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.
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.
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.
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.