On a farm in northern Italy not far from the Adriatic Sea, Giampaolo Bassi’s crops are in trouble.
“The salt water is killing the plants because they can’t stand such a high concentration of salt,” says Bassi, 32.
He pulls out one of the most fragile-looking plants: there’s nothing where peanuts should hang from the root.
Giampaolo has had problems with salt in the water before, but the situation has never been as bad as it is now.
The region is experiencing the worst drought in 70 years, as a result of the lack of rain and snow since the winter period, in addition to rising temperatures.
The Po River and its tributaries are a lifeline for many farming communities in northern Italy.
Its route is 652 km, from the southwestern Alps to the Adriatic Sea. But annual satellite images show that dry patches are expanding.
Weaker flow, experts say, is pushing salty seawater deeper into the river.
“Usually, we see that sea water enters the mouth of the river for a few kilometers,” says Paolo Ciavola, professor of Coastal Dynamics at the University of Ferrara.
“But at the moment, official data from the Authority of the Po Basin show an ingress of salt water up to 30 km from the mouth.”
The freshwater river normally pushes its flow into the sea, but, says the professor, “at this point the river is losing the fight, and the saltwater is stronger.”
“This water is used for irrigation and therefore farmers can suffer huge economic damage from it.”
Near the small town of Sermide in the province of Mantua, locals gather at a boat club cafe to drink and smoke.
But the small boats are stranded because a large swath of the river has become a sandbar.
At this point, the Po River splits to both sides of a small island. It is possible to walk through it, and crush the cracked earth. Looking from the balcony, residents say the scenario is not normal.
A resident of the region, barista Sergio Bettoni says that this is the first time that the little boats have been completely abandoned.
His wife, Maria Grazia Lupi, says the view makes her desolate.
“I hope the weather changes and the river gradually returns to normal. It’s a disaster for everyone, for the companies here too.”
With the drought of recent months, the wreckage of a Nazi boat sunk in World War II and a German military vehicle appeared in the water.
Nazi troops were pushed north of the river in 1945 as the Allies advanced.
Sérgio points to the wooden wreckage of the vessel appearing on the surface. According to him, the material has been submerged since the time of the war.
This drought is exposing the hidden history of the Dust.
In rural areas in Lombardy and Emilio-Romagna, bombs are visible spraying the fields. In some places, the green scenery is exuberant. Likewise, the river, to a layman’s eyes, looks healthy in some places.
But these are two of the five regions where a state of emergency due to drought was recently declared by the government.
About 75 km east of the city of Ferrara lives 67-year-old farmer Giuliano Rolfini.
When asked about the drought, he says he’s been counting the days since the last rain. “I’ve lived here since I was born. This is the worst year ever. The future is totally uncertain.”
This drought, together with an avalanche triggered by the collapse of a glacier in the Dolomites mountains, has again raised the alarm about the effects of climate change in Italy.
Giampaolo fears losing up to a quarter of the family’s income this year on his peanut plantation.
He also cultivates other products, and says he hasn’t had major losses so far, but he worries about the future.
“Our fear is the progressive increase in the presence of salt in the river water, because this makes the soil arid. It is increasingly affecting our land, it is more difficult to cultivate and the farm is less productive”, he says.
Rain would help to dilute the river’s salt levels, but forecasts are not encouraging.
Professor Ciavola warns that this type of situation will be common in the future with the intensification of climate change. Italy and other countries will have to adapt, he says.
“Maybe you need to change the type of crop or optimize the use of water in a better way. So it’s not just a short-term adaptation strategy, but a long-term one.”
– The text was originally published in https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/internacional-62110054