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Water and integral ecological regeneration: the Italian case

Water is life. Water is nourishment. Water is food. Water is a shared responsibility.

14 Mar 2023
EIT Food South
10 min reading time

Note: this article was first published in December 2022, in Il Sole 24h.

Talking about water these days brings about all those images of a country hard hit by sudden and violent water bombs. The South of Italy, which until a few weeks ago was directly subject to a dangerous as well as inevitable tropicalisation phenomenon, now is facing heavy flooding and major issues. Water is also inundating the north of the Bel Paese, getting to the empty beds of many Italian rivers and lakes. And yet, not to fill them.

That’s right – because drought and desertification are no longer just summer episodes by now. This was confirmed by the current levels of the Po, Italy’s longest river, which waters in December remained below the average level of the last 20 years, while the Italian mountains started showing their most vulnerable flank in 2022, a real annus horribilis for the Alpine glaciers, based on a recent Legambiente report.

The truth is that water, in the world as well as in Italy, is a reflection of profound changes, rationales and also paradoxes of a society that seems to have forgotten what it means to challenge the memory and the power of this natural element.

Water is life, and yet more than 30% of Italian households do not have regular access to it throughout the year. And that stands out even more in recent news, as we hear stories about Andora in Liguria or about Udine, where issues were caused by bursting pipes. Water is nourishment, yet 299 pollutants have been detected in Italian lakes, rivers and groundwater. Water is food, yet entire regions such as Apulia, Sicily and Sardinia are already classified as arid zones by the World Atlas of Desertification. Water is a shared responsibility, yet Italy has earned a sad European record of per capita water consumption, at 220 litres of water per day compared to the 165 in Europe. But for almost half of the population, ours is a virtuous behaviour.

These are just a few facts that demonstrate the importance and urgency of bringing water back into the spotlight: water that was once there and that can return if cherished; water that heals and is not poisonous; water that brings citizens closer to politics, people closer to nature instead of dividing.

To achieve this, it is essential to go beyond those simplifications that would lead to blaming one sector or another, avoiding the risk of dangerously splitting the ecosystem into many isolated bubbles and embrace an ecosystem-based, comprehensive and interdisciplinary vision instead.

This inevitably brings about questions – precisely in months like these, when water is abundant – like the need to find out where it all goes and how it can be harnessed (even hoarded), to tackle future months of scarcity. Connecting more stakeholders in a better way and creating the enabling environments for the different perspectives to find a dialogue: this is what unites Future Food Institute and EIT Food in their shared mission to transform water – from a problem that crosses the individual, social, economic and environmental spheres, into a tool for integral ecological regeneration.

Our country’s many successful stories and case studies, available for reading below, are just an example and a tangible proof that such a path is indeed possible.

Water security: a POLITICAL issue indeed

The political actions that are most needed today are those aimed at implementing common welfare, putting individualism before collective interest. Ensuring every citizen’s access to enough good quality drinking water for daily life and socioeconomic development – as the very definition of water security states – becomes indeed a political issue every time we are reminded that the Mediterranean is warming 20% faster than the global average. It is also a political issue when we look at 2022 ISTAT data: in 2020, 11 Italian municipalities were forced to rationing their drinking water distribution, in a trend that is increasing compared to previous years.

Yet, there is no shortage of stories of bravery and co-creation initiatives, that show that water can be a crucial driver for inclusive political action from the political, national and local standpoint.

Evidence of this is the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, launched by the City of Milan in 2015: a pact that goes bottom up, originating from cities and mayors, to make drinking water accessible starting from public facilities.

Another one is the CIIP - Servizio Idrico Integrato (Integrated Water Service), a public water service operator in the Marche region, an area strongly affected by seismic episodes; through a collaboration with universities, research centres and start-ups, they work to reduce water loss in the distribution of drinking water, and strive to reuse this resource in a sustainable and safe manner, through accurate assessment and mitigation of sewer overflows’ environmental impact.

Only once politicians would be open to listen, welcome, learn and swap opinions with other experts, will it be possible to lay the foundations for an integrated and integral water governance, a mission on which the Body of Knowledge on water scarcity – an initiative carried out by the EIT – is working on, bringing together professionals and creating solutions, such as those presented in the White Paper on water scarcity.

Water scarcity in the changing Italian landscape: the ENVIRONMENTAL dimension of water

Almost 30% of the Italian territory is affected by desertification. From North to South, in recent years the Italian landscape has been showing the signs of the most extreme drought: entire stretches of rivers completely dried up, like the Po this year; emptied lakes like the Garda; mountainous areas like the Alps already declaring a drought alert in June. Too often we forget that desertification is nothing but one of the most serious forms of soil deterioration and degradation, which does not necessarily translate into obvious desertification, but brings about a more invisible fragility of the entire ecosystem at a hydrological, morphological, vegetal and zoological level. No wonder that while almost 20% of the national territory is at very high risk of hydrogeological instability and landslides, all Italian municipalities (an astonishing 94%) are in danger.

Starting with agriculture, the main water sector in Italy, stories of resilience are sprouting all over, in an effort to defend and restore what was once known worldwide as the “garden of Europe” for its incredible richness, variety and unique natural biodiversity.

Thanks to the valuable contribution that AI and detection sensors can make in the fight against water scarcity and climate unpredictability, as well as thanks to programmes and contests such as InnoWise Scale (part of the EIT Food programme to support entrepreneurs in their scale-up process and put them in touch with end-users to test and scale up their solutions), start-ups such as Soonapse are now emerging on the Italian market.

They confirm that it is possible to plan crops according to weather forecasts and water footprint of each soil type, maximising yields while minimising risks and the related costs. Precision agriculture approaches such as those developed by X-Farm, that leverage drones to cut the water footprint and reduce phytosanitary treatments, are proof that technology can be a positive tool that benefits farmers and environment alike.

Many are the projects emerging in the country – one of these is Restore, which demonstrates the power of re-evaluating minor water resources, starting with multifunctional water consumption, or Acqua nelle Nostre Mani, that promotes water savings of up to 100 million litres a year, directly supporting the Italian food and wine industry of excellence.

Awareness (or lack thereof?) in water consumption: when water becomes a tool for SOCIAL regeneration

From 1960 to 2014, worldwide water consumption in Italian households increased by 600%. To this figure, we must add an all-Italian negative record: the Bel Paese is not only among the main household water users in Europe (while also second in the world for bottled water consumption) but also among the least aware when it comes to real consumption. Research data show that a mere 12% of Italians are really concerned about water: the reasons for this lack of concern stem from a misperception about the impact that Italian households have on this resource, which is underestimated by as much as five times compared to actual consumption.

Real commitment to this cause can only come through widespread education and awareness at a social level – starting with children, passing through young people and then adult citizens. Italy already offers many examples going in this direction: through the many experience-based training models rooted in ecosystem thinking and challenge-based learning; through projects such as hackathons held in schools and aimed at involving students and teachers in designing and making prototype solutions to achieve lower water use; through the rise of collaborative networks throughout the territory, such as Rareche nel Cilento (Salerno), an initiative that brings together 25 companies and farmers practising Organic and Regenerative Agriculture, with the aim of disseminating the principles of sustainable agriculture, bringing the actors of the supply chain closer to production while re-educating producers and consumers on seasonality, sustainable management and regeneration of natural resources.

These are all stories of change and citizen empowerment starting from the strengths of integral training.

Water safety and wellbeing: the HUMAN side of water

If we are what we eat and what we eat requires water, it goes without saying that indirectly we are also what we drink. Yet, when it comes to water health and safety, i.e. the right to have access to safe water, free of microorganisms, chemicals and of adequate colour, smell and taste, our country could do better.

Poisonous and highly polluting substances such as pesticides, insecticides and fertilisers have not only been detected in most Italian rivers and lakes, but also in aquifers and sewers, forcing cities such as Rome to ban the use of domestic water for personal use due to a concentration of arsenic.

But Italy is also seeing stories of rebirth in this sector, with highly innovative systems such as NAL (New Artificial Leaf). This technology, developed by Green Independence, designed to obtain drinking water using only solar panels energy brings our country to the forefront of wastewater purification.

New systems, such as Easy Drop, developed by Italian start-up Saba Technology, make it possible to recover drinking water from the moisture in the air, laying the foundations for universal access to this precious resource. New laboratories are also working on the regenerative and healing power of water on the mind and psyche.

The Mediterranean Mind Lab in Pollica, a spin-off of a start-up called Strobilo, was set up as a research activity to study our connection with nature, using neuroscience and maximising the benefits that direct exposure to certain environments, such as natural and water environments, can generate on physical and mental health, as well as longevity.

The water footprint of food: the CULTURAL face of water

Every food has a specific water footprint, i.e. the amount of water required to produce it and to allow consumers to enjoy it.

The water footprint of a tomato (214 litres of water/kg of produce) is not the same required to produce a kg of red meat (15,415 litres of water/kg) or chocolate (17,196 litres of water/kg). It goes without saying that behind food, the cornerstone of Italian culture and identity and the almost 200 food choices we make every day, there is a hidden, significant water impact.

In this context, our country is undoubtedly home to some of the most enduring examples of sustainability and regeneration serving the cause of cultural heritage – such as the Mediterranean Diet Lifestyle. This model, recognised since 2010 as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, not only brings back food as the foundation of cultural identity and continuity of communities, but also preserves the value of water, as confirmed by the fact that in 13 Mediterranean cities, following a Mediterranean Diet leads to a reduction in the water footprint of between 19 and 43% compared to current diets.

Our country is also land of talents: countless are the companies, chefs, and entrepreneurs who were able to create recipes with a low water impact, adapting them to the specifics of their territory – like Ratanà – or to restore preparation techniques that slow down the waste of food, another regrettable form of water waste. Fermentation, a method revived and used by the Food Alchemist team in Bologna, is one of the techniques capable of extending food life by weeks, months or even years if stored correctly.

The ECONOMIC cost of dispersed water

The cost of water, now officially listed on the stock market, is indeed a sensitive issue. Yet, there is no shortage of contradictions and paradoxes in this context either. Although water service tariffs have risen by over 90% in the last ten years, and even though 1.9 million families in Italy today live in extreme poverty, around 30% of the water supply still does not reach the end users but is dispersed in a faulty distribution system full of holes – literally. A system that breaks the bank for people as well as for the public coffers, while endangering the 5,450 agricultural “treasures of our Made in Italy”, as listed by Coldiretti in 2022.

Adding to this nonsense is the rising number of stories about rediscovery, revalorisation and efficiency enhancement, such as Blue Gold®, which directly supports water service operators through the installation of smart devices designed to transform integrated water service networks into sources of useful data for better water management, or solutions such as those developed by GRIDDIT and Latitudo 40, to create urban and environmental development models capable of predicting and preventing hydrogeological and flood risks. Finally, more and more examples are popping up that involve slow and cautious water tourism, as a necessary tool to promote and stimulate the restoration and enhancement of the Italian precious cultural, environmental and landscape heritage. This is also achieved thanks to 14 museums and facilities belonging to the UNESCO World Network of Water Museums.

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