Situation is extreme for region’s fruit and vegetable producers, with around half the island said to be at serious risk of desertification

Lake Pozzillo Sicily drought

Sicily’s largest artificial basin, Lake Pozzillo, has lost more than half its usual volume of water

Image: Copernicus Sentinel-2

Sicily’s fruit and vegetable producers are in a “race against time” to overcome the island region’s worst drought in decades.

“It has not rained more or less for a year,” Dole Italy’s export manager Sara Grasso tells Fruitnet. “It’s a very serious problem.”

Sicily has had only a tiny amount of rain during the past year. This has left reservoirs and other storage facilities well below their usual level, and made aquifers redundant as the water table sinks.

For producers of major fresh produce exports like oranges and tomatoes, the situation is grave. For example, irrigation of citrus groves in the area south of Catania and to the north of Syracuse in eastern Sicily depends to a large extent on water sourced from nearby Lake Lentini.

But according to Grasso, the cooperative responsible for delivering the water has struggled to meet demand from increasingly parched centres of production.

“Producers have been left to their own devices,” she explains. “I have also heard that, even for those businesses that have private wells, the underground aquifers are dry because there is no rain and it’s incredibly hot. They have run out.”

The only viable option, for those that can afford it, is apparently to buy in water. But the impact on businesses already struggling to survive a recent period of high cost inflation is clear.

“Everyone is very worried,” Grasso says. “The problem will be the costs. On the one hand, in order to irrigate, you need to buy water and organise yourself in any way possible.”

She adds: “The other challenge, given the type of products involved, is that without enough irrigation, fruits like oranges don’t grow to the right size. That’s true of other locally grown products too. If you don’t irrigate, you don’t have any product.”

More action needed

Industry representatives have demanded urgent action. Nino Accetta, president of Fedagripesca Sicilia, called on the government in Rome to bring much needed aid to the region.

“We hope that [Agriculture] Minister Lollobrigida will immediately sign the long-awaited decree that will make emergency measures effective, in order to ensure that Sicilian agricultural, livestock, wine, fruit and vegetable cooperatives and businesses can survive an emergency that is the most serious crisis in the last 50 years,” he said.

In March, the region’s authorities declared a state of emergency, and water rationing began in almost 100 towns. According to national irrigation consortium ANBI, the second half of 2023 was Sicily’s driest in more than a century.

“Considering that since 27 May there has been no significant rainfall in Sicily, we can presume that the remaining water in over half of the island’s basins is in fact unusable,” warned Massimo Gargano, ANBI’s general director.

With the backing of the European Drought Observatory, his organisation has issued a red alert for more than half of the land in Sicily, Puglia and Basilicata, as well as coastal parts of Calabria and Sardinia, and areas located along the Apennine ridge and the Adriatic coast.

The aridity seen in those areas was, Gargano added, “a precursor of desertification”.

In a statement issued by Accetta and Confcooperative Sicilia’s head of agriculture Alessandro Chiarelli, the scale of the challenge Sicily now faces and the need for central government assistance are made abundantly clear.

“Our requests have been accepted by the regional government, and the will is there to identify an effective solution, but the game is not over yet. Now, more than ever, it is a race against time.”