The desperation of the farmers in the Po Valley does not leave the highest ecclesiastical dignitaries untouched. Archbishop Mario Delpini of Milan will hold services in three rural parishes in his diocese on Saturday to pray “for the gift of water and for a wise use of this vital element,” the Archdiocese of Milan said.

In the past few days, several country priests had carried out processions with the faithful in the regions of Piedmont, Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna, which were particularly affected by the heat and drought – so that the sky would finally rain again on the parched earth and the parched fields.

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So far, the intercessions have been unsuccessful: all of Italy and especially the Po Valley are suffering from a drought and heat these days that has not happened for at least eight decades. In Piedmont it hasn’t rained properly since the beginning of December, in Emilia-Romagna the level of the “Grande Fiume”, the largest river in Italy, is eight meters below the normal level for this time of year.

At the measuring station of Pontelagoscuro, a few kilometers above the Po delta, 160 cubic meters per second flowed in the direction of the Adriatic Sea on Wednesday. 1500 to 2000 cubic meters would be normal at this time of the year – the bottom has atrophied to a trickle. Because the level of the river is lower than sea level, salt water from the Adriatic Sea now flows more than twenty kilometers inland in the river bed, penetrating the fields and the groundwater.

The result is described by Giancarlo Mantovani, director of the Po Delta Maintenance Consortium: “Nothing grows within 200 meters of the course of the river; the earth has become a desert.” Because of the seepage of salt water into the ground water, it is only a matter of time “until salt water flows out of the taps”.

It doesn’t look any better in the upper course of the river, in Piedmont. “Believe me, I’m not exaggerating: we are witnessing a catastrophe of biblical proportions here,” says Giuseppe Casalone, a farmer whose farm is a few kilometers south of Novara. Most of his plants have dried up so much that even rain would no longer help: the young plants have already died. And summer has only just begun – the driest and hottest months of the year, July and August, are yet to come.

According to the Italian farmers’ association Coldiretti, crop failures in early grain varieties are already around 30 percent. The association expects a loss of 40 percent for fruit and vegetables.

The rice farmers suffer the most: “If it doesn’t rain very soon, there will be a disaster,” emphasizes Paolo Carrà, president of the rice producers of Novara, Biella and Vercelli in Piedmont. At this time of year, the rice fields should actually be flooded, which is currently hardly possible given the dramatic low level of the rivers.

Carrà recalls that more than 50% of the rice grown in the EU grows in the Po Valley; In Piedmont alone, 4,000 rice farms produce 800,000 tons a year, or 27 percent of total EU production. Carrà expects crop failures of 50 to 70 percent due to the drought. According to Coldiretti, there is a risk of billions in damage. Several regions have declared a state of emergency.

There is still relatively little to be felt of the lack of water on Lake Garda: Although it is only 60 percent full, the holiday joys on the waters, which are equally popular with tourists and locals, are still undiminished. But that is exactly why a bitter dispute is raging behind the scenes about the amount of discharge – after all, Lake Garda with its capacity of 50 billion cubic meters is the largest water reservoir in northern Italy.

In order to help the Po, its fauna and the farmers south of the lake, the Regulatory Authority for the Po Basin near Peschiera del Garda has ordered the opening of the sluices in order to reduce the flow rate over the Mincio river first by 10 and then by 30 cubic meters increase per second. Such measures are provided for in national law for such crisis situations.

Because of the increased discharge volume and evaporation as a result of increased water temperatures, the level of Lake Garda is now also falling at an alarming rate – the neighboring communities sounded the alarm last week and said “basta”. “We have to protect our shipping and the fish, while at the same time ensuring that the farmers around the lake can still irrigate their crops in August,” emphasizes Pierlucio Ceresa, managing director of the Garda Association of Municipalities.

In addition, the increased discharge of 30 cubic meters per second does not bring anything to the Po: “The river needs at least 500 additional cubic meters per second at the moment. The only thing we will achieve by opening the locks is that after the Po, Lake Garda will also get sick.”

Meuccio Berselli, head of the regulator for the Po, sees it differently – and he calls for “collegiality and cooperation” from the Lake Garda communities. The electricity suppliers Enel, Edison and A2A have shown solidarity these days, having pledged to drain a total of five million cubic meters from their reservoirs over the next ten days to alleviate the plight of farmers around the Po.

“But after that the reserves are over, because our water reservoirs are only half full,” emphasized a spokesman for Enel yesterday. In other words: The emergency measures have largely been exhausted – now perhaps only prayer can help.