Water is already a disputed commodity. Think of the turnover revolving around bottled water. Or even of the large multinationals rush to take over the world's largest water reserves. Interview with Alessandro Mauceri, secretary of the National Environmental School and author of the essay "War on water", on Italy’s situation concerning water.
The strong heat waves of recent days have brought back to the fore an Italian problem that is global. What are the reasons for the water crisis in our country?
The reasons are mainly three. The first is the collection and distribution plants mismanagement: today all the media talk about are the copious losses, which, in some cases, reach and exceed 50%. It is not a recent problem: it has been talked about for decades. So far, little or nothing has been done to fix it. It should not be forgotten: pipelines (as well as collecting basins) require constant maintenance. When this maintenance is not done, there is a point of no return, when radical interventions are required which, however, require large investments. Now we are talking about the PNRR (National Recovery and Resilience Plan, in its Italian acronyms) but we must not forget that it is not the panacea for all ills and, above all, that in Italy the PNRR also has a cost for citizens. The collecting basins management is a problem that the National Environment School Movimento Azzurro has been reporting for a long time: without removing the silt that lies at the bottom of these basins, their flow is considerably reduced, year after year.
The second cause of the water crisis is radical climate change, which is reducing the availability of drinking water resources. Keep in mind: what is lacking is not 'water', sometimes not even 'fresh water', what is missing is water for human use.
The third reason, no less important, is that in Italy (as in almost all developed countries), the culture of 'do not waste' is completely lacking. The lifestyle of Italians (like the rest of Europeans and many other 'developed' countries) does not consider this important factor. Two examples. The first is the habit of using drinking water to drain the toilet: in practice, we collect fresh water, purify it, distribute it (losing about half of it along the way) and then use it in the bathroom drains. A paradox having no logical justification. The second 'waste' belongs to lifestyle and eating habits. For years (not to say decades) it has been known that a certain lifestyle, a certain diet is healthier and has a lower impact on the environment. From this point of view, Italy seems to be among the most virtuous countries: according to various studies, the 'Mediterranean' diet (not surprisingly, UNESCO named it as intangible heritage of humanity) not only 'is good' but also allows a significant enormous savings in 'virtual' water (the amount of water needed to produce a certain good). Just to give one fact: according to some studies, returning to the Mediterranean diet would save 1,400 liters of virtual water per person per day. It is enough to multiply this number by the Italy’s inhabitants and by 365 to understand what the impact of a correct food choice would be on national water reserves.
In the midst of the drought emergency, dramatic data arrives from ISPRA (Higher Institute for Environmental Protection and Research, in Italian acronym): the availability of water in the thirty years from 1991 to 2020 has decreased by 30%. Is this situation set to worsen due to the climate change effects?
According to the assessments of ISPRA's BIGBANG hydrological model, the average annual availability of water resources, calculated over the long term 1951-2020, amounts to approximately 141.9 billion cubic meters, of which approximately 64 billion go to the aquifers’ recharge. This data, in the last three decades, shows a negative trend. Not only that: it shows a deterioration of 19% compared to the previous thirty years (1921–1950). Therefore, the current situation is not an 'extraordinary' phenomenon, linked to the climate rapid evolution, but it is a well-known situation whose trend has been known for decades. Nevertheless, no one has bothered to do anything about it. As we have repeatedly reiterated (also on the IOM / United Nations IMRF - International Organisation of Migration - International Migration Review Forum-, which was held in New York from 17 to 20 May this year) there are two types of emergencies: sudden ones and those that are generated over the years if not decades. Both are important. For both, governments (especially those of developed countries, the situation does concern not only Italy, but many European countries and also the US) should implement adequate preventive measures. They don't. Of course, doing it is very expensive. So, in many cases, instead of 'doing', they prefer 'studying how to do it'. At the end, all the countries are full of plans for emergencies (even water emergencies) but they do almost nothing to prevent or deal with them. Obviously, when one of these events occurs or reaches a critical level, it can no longer be postponed. With regard to the demand for water in Italy. The data provided by the European Environment Information and Observation Network (EIONET) database, based on data transmitted by ISTAT (National Institute of Statistics), the average annual total withdrawal for Italy is around 37.7 billion m3. By comparing this withdrawals value with the average annual water resource available, it is clear that Italy is in a water stress condition. For sure, the situation will not improve. Neither in the short nor in the medium term.
In Italy, the scarcity of water is caused by heat waves and huge losses in the drinking water distribution service: a third is lost along the way. What are the consequences of this problem?
The consequences are astounding. First, this figure concerns the national average. But, if you look at the many large Italian cities, the water lost percentage is much greater: it reaches 50% or more. The first consequence is that we must size the plants for a much greater demand than the real one. The amount of treated, purified and networked water is also greater. This means higher costs for citizens, higher energy costs and much more. To this, we have to add an aspect never (or almost) talked about. Most of the fresh water consumed is not for civil but for agricultural use: about 14% of Italian water resources are used for drinking, more than 65% is withdrawn for irrigation purposes in agriculture or livestock (the rest for industrial use). The reuse in agriculture of at least part of the water for urban use would have great benefits. It is also important to pay attention to the type of agricultural products that are grown or raised: some require much greater quantities of water (cattle farming requires a lot of 'virtual water'). The way of producing is also important, think of what water intensive production requires. All issues that have been known for decades: in 2009, for example, the Water Resources Group estimated a world water deficit of 40% by 2030. Nobody did anything; they preferred to continue talking about CO2 only. Even in this case without doing much: on a global level, emissions have continued to increase, with significant climatic and environmental consequences. Also on water resources.
You are the author of the essay "War on water". Do you think this is a plausible scenario in the near future?
It is not plausible. It is already a reality. More or less violent clashes over water are already taking place in various parts of the planet. Think of the water-grabbing phenomenon that often accompanies land grabbing. Think of the clash between countries over the management of fresh water reserves. On this, a clarification is necessary. Globally, few of the major sources of fresh water fall within the borders of a single country. The vast majority are 'shared'. In other words, they cross the borders of different countries. An example is the case of the Nile, which has always been an essential tool for life in Egypt. Before arriving in Egypt, the Nile passes through many other countries. It was enough that one of these, Ethiopia, decided to build a mega-dam on this river to meet its energy needs (a more than legitimate right) for the clash to occur. Even armed. Only the intervention of the UN and the African Union (thanks to the Democratic Republic of Congo, the current president) has so far avoided the worst. Somewhere of the planet, water is used to attack a segment of the population: in Gaza, the Israelis have rationed to the limit the water reserves destined for Palestinians. Other times water becomes 'strategic': in the South China Sea, China has literally 'built' a group of artificial islands on the water, to expand its military control over this 'hot' zone. A 'war on water' is underway also in Italy: attempts have been underway for several years to privatize water.
So will water no longer be a public good but a disputed good?
Water is already a disputed commodity. Think of the water management problems in most Italian centers. Or of the turnover revolving around bottled water. Or even of the large multinationals rush to take over the world's largest water reserves. Phenomena that are already ahead of what people think. Increasing population, decreasing water resources and leaking infrastructures are a single factor on which speculators are ready to bet: water. A resource on which large financial groups are already speculating with stocks such as the S & P Global Water Index and the World Water Index. Bertrand Lecourt, manager of Fidelity International has stated, “There is no economy without water, there is no sustainable economy without waste management, but these sectors remain relatively unexplored by investor companies”. Words that clash terribly with those of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for which water is an inalienable human right. Having made the law, the deception was found: here, therefore, some unscrupulous speculators have already suggested considering water as an inalienable asset but only for the quantity necessary for survival. The rest, according to them, would be an open field for speculators and businesspersons.
Which countries will have to face the greatest problems due to water shortages?
According to data from the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), 25% of the earth's surface is already heavily degraded or subjected to high rates of degradation. It is estimated that two-thirds of the African land has already been degraded, in part or totally, and that soil degradation affects at least 485 million people, 65% of the entire African population. In Latin America, it is estimated that 50% of agricultural land will be subject to desertification by 2050. In addition, there is also the drought issue or the rainfall decrease in the frequency related to the annual average in a certain place. Drought is considered severe when average agricultural production falls by 10%, and catastrophic when it falls by more than 30%. Well, over the last few decades there has been an increase in the frequency and intensity of drought periods. In some African countries (Niger, Chad, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, DRC, Uganda, Angola, Mozambique and others), less than 50% of the population has access to a safe drinking water source precisely because of drought prolonged periods. The same in other countries: in Papua New Guinea, Oceania, less than 50% of the population has access to a safe source of water. In India, Morocco and even in some European countries, water is terribly polluted. Then Myanmar, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Yemen: here the percentage of the population affected by water problems is between 25 and 50%. These are poor countries, where the average per capita income is among the lowest, but where the natural resources available - sometimes - are not lacking, (there is enough fresh water in some of these countries but for various reasons is not easily accessible for human use). The consequences are terrible: without water, it is not easy for a boy to go to school because he often has to travel miles to bring home a few liters of water. Often 'water-borne' and 'water-brought' diseases (a topic depth dealt in 'War on Water') make it impossible for these kids to acquire the minimum of knowledge that would allow them to have a future once grown up.
What measures do governments need to implement for water to be a public good?
The first and fundamental would be to understand (and make it clear to those who want to speculate on water) that water is not an infinite good. With the world population increasing and drinking water resources decreasing (also due to the melting of glaciers), the adoption of policies to avoid waste and the correct use of this fundamental resource can no longer be postponed. The first point could perhaps be just this: understanding the importance of water for the survival of people on Earth. Without oil, without gold, without wheat and many of the 'primary' assets that are the subject of discussion and speculation on the stock exchange, you can live. Without water, no. One cannot live. Until this is understood, there will always be waste, water crises and speculation. It's 'Water Wars'.