Starved by drought, Rome’s water supply may not spring eternal

JUDY WOODRUFF: A serious drought has swept southern Europe this summer. Some farmers in Italy and Spain are predicting the worst crop yields in 20 years. Agricultural damage and loss are expected to be in the billions.

NewsHour special correspondent Christopher Livesay bring us this report from Italy.

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CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: For three generations, Daniel Granieri and his family have farmed olives in the tiny hilltop town of Nerola, producing extra-virgin olive oil from these fields outside Rome.

This summer, things took a turn, and for the worst.

DANIEL GRANIERI, Olive Farmer (through interpreter): I started to get very worried. From being worried, that turned into being absolutely certain about the drought. There's never been anything like this, not in 20 years. This is the worst it's ever been.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Granieri is also the regional president of the Italian Farmers Association, Coldiretti. He shows me some of the damage up close.

DANIEL GRANIERI (through interpreter): Look here, there's hardly anything compared to the olives that should be on this branch. Raising the price won't offset the loss. But we'll have to raise them at least 10 to 15 percent. We've lost up to 70 percent of our harvest in the region.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: The drought is so relentless that his town now rations water. For eight-hour blocks every day, they can't turn on their taps. And they aren't alone. So far, 20 nearby towns have had to follow suit. Roughly $200 million in crops have been lost in the Central Lazio region alone. And two billion dollars have gone up in smoke nationwide, due to drought and related brush fires, according to Coldiretti.

Conditions have gotten so dire that even Rome, the city of aqueducts, has warned it too may have to ration water for a million and a half Rome residents, and the tourists who flock there.

There are almost 3,000 of these drinking fountains like this all over Rome, and there's a trick to getting a good drink.

But that could soon be a thing of the past. The city is currently turning off 30 fountains a day because of the drought.

Romans call them nasoni, or "big noses" for their curved spigots. The water utility says it's the first time in history they've had to turn them off, a radical move in a city where water plays such a central role, from the Trevi fountain, to the Tiber River.

TOM RANKIN, La Sapienza University: Rome was founded where it is because of this water, because of the Tiber Tiber.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Tom Rankin is a professor of urbanism at Rome's La Sapienza University.

TOM RANKIN: The Romans were smart. They started removing the groundwater where it was undesired, using for their water source, wells.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: So, the ancient Romans were master engineers of water.

TOM RANKIN: They really were. They really were. And when you think about it, the sewer system, they were certainly in place in the 4th century B.C., and it's still functioning today. It's probably the most cost- effective public works project ever built.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: But modern city planning has fallen short. The drought is one thing, he says. But long-term mismanagement is also to blame.

Officials from both the city and the water utility declined requests for an interview.

TOM RANKIN: Rome, of all the European capitals, is the only city that has a fully sustainable water supply, meaning that the water table is recharged faster than the city can use the water. The real problem, though, is not that there wouldn't be enough water to provide for the population, it's the waste of water.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: The waste of water?

TOM RANKIN: The waste of water. The water system is damaged. And therefore, at least 25 percent of it, some say up to half of it, leaks out before getting to its destination.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Leaks like this one, that's caused foliage to overgrow a path along the river.

TOM RANKIN: Because you see, this water isn't actually stagnant, it's flowing. It's flowing from the city's water system.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: And this one, which has formed stalactites.

The water utility says it's working to repair city pipes in order to avoid rationing water. But the lingering threat frightens Roman shaved-ice vendor, Maria di Pascale.

MARIA DI PASCALE, Shaved Ice Vendor (through interpereter): It would be a tragedy because without water, you can't survive, you can't work. It's essential for humans to survive. But especially us, because we need it for our business.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: The threat is especially acute for some of Rome's most vulnerable. The Red Cross says turning off public fountains poses a serious risk to the city's thousands of homeless, which include a growing number of migrants.

Volunteer Marzia di Mento distributes food and water to migrants and refugees outside Rome's Tiburtina Train Station.

MARZIA DI MENTO, Boabab Experience (through interpreter): We need those fountains. We use those that are closest to the camp. We use this pipe for the people to bathe in.

We're afraid it could be turned off at any moment. It's their only water source. It would be a huge loss.

Many of the migrants have skin diseases from the trip over here by boat. They need water to clean those wounds. Water is fundamental.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: For the moment, Rome says it's averted water rationing by tapping Lake Bracciano, about 30 miles outside the city. But that's caused still more problems, as water levels plummet to alarming lows, threatening local plants and wildlife.

Back in the Rome countryside, farmer Daniel Granieri survey's his olives. This year, he'll have to pick them early in order to save what isn't already lost.

DANIEL GRANIERI (through interpreter): Drought has absolutely become a recurring event. A farm like mine now has to decide either to change business, or make some serious changes in infrastructure. If this happens again next year, farms will go out of business.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: For urbanism professor Tom Rankin, Rome's drought is a wake-up call, not just for the Eternal City, but for cities around the world coping with a changing climate.

TOM RANKIN: If Rome, which is by definition a great water city, if it can no longer manage its abundant resource, then how can we expect places which have a very limited supply of water to survive? On the other hand, if Rome were able to demonstrate its ability to engineer a solution, providing fresh, clean water for free to a growing population, then it would set a model for the rest of the world.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Is that what we're seeing, Rome rising to the occasion?

TOM RANKIN: Not yet.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Christopher Livesay, in Rome.

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