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Europe: Experts Warn Of Dangers Of Aral Sea-Like Desertification

  • Jeffrey Donovan

A crippling drought in Italy this summer has experts worried that the destruction of land in Southern Europe through "desertification" may be less gradual than previously thought. Experts are now worried that unless radical measures are taken, industrial farming and water waste could make parts of Europe look like the devastated area around Central Asia's Aral Sea.

Prague, 8 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- When Pietro Laureano stands atop the rocky bluffs that overlook the swirling Ionian Sea and vast expanses of farmland in his southern Italian region of Puglia, he can hardly believe his eyes.

As one of the world's leading experts on "desertification," Laureano had long expected to see the picturesque area of Puglia gradually destroyed through industrial farming, poor water management, and extreme weather caused by global warming.

Years of studying desertification in Africa and the Mediterranean had convinced him that large swathes of Southern European countries like Italy, Spain, and Greece would one day resemble the devastated farmlands around Central Asia's disappearing Aral Sea -- perhaps the world's most dramatic example of desertification.

Laureano, 51, still believes he is right. But after this summer's drought -- the worst to hit southern Italy in 30 years, triggering rationing and protests -- he now thinks he was overly optimistic about the time such a process would take: "Twenty years ago, when we [experts] first rang the alarm bell about possible desertification in the Mediterranean area, I never thought I'd see what I have seen in the course of my life. I thought it would have taken a lot longer."

But this summer may have changed minds -- at least in Italy -- about the dangers of industrial farming and wasteful water management. Experts warn that much of Europe could end up like the Aral Sea area if steps are not taken to arrest desertification, which according to the United Nations already affects the lives of 1 billion people in sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia.

Laureano makes this observation: "We are heading toward an enormous disaster. Italy's entire coastal agricultural lands, which are the most productive of all [in the country] at this point, will soon be unusable because it will all be on highly salinized soil."

After the lowest rainfall in 70 years -- combined with a national water network that generally loses some 40 percent of its volume to theft and poor maintenance each year -- southern Italians now alternate their days with and without water. Experts say reservoirs in Sicily could run dry by October if rain does not pick up. A similar crisis is gripping four other regions.

Thousands have protested across the area. And Sicilian police have put more than 40 people under investigation in a crackdown on water theft that allegedly involves everyone from small farmers to mafia bosses who resell stolen water at huge profit.

Sabina Carnemolla, a Palermo geologist who works on water issues, describes a common water-theft scenario: "Panic takes over. A farmer knows there is a public pipeline running under his land. So he illegally hooks onto it. But then he doesn't maintain this connection very well, and a lot of water gets lost."

Last month, police near Palermo traced a network of illegal piping that fed a pond used to water the land of Giovanni "The Pig" Brusca, a convicted mafia boss who retained his property after joining a witness protection program.

The crisis appeared to catch the government by surprise last month. But faced with agricultural losses estimated at nearly $4 billion, a state of emergency was declared in the south and 670 million euros were earmarked for drought-stricken farmers.

But experts say such measures are merely temporary and don't solve the long-term causes of water shortage. Carnemolla makes this observation: "As a citizen, I wonder why nothing happens and they [officials] simply chase after every emergency, asking for money at every turn but never making a medium-term plan to deal with the overall situation."

At the height of Italy's drought last month, Italian media reported that the government is seriously considering a nearly $1 billion project to build a pipeline to pump water from Albania to Puglia. Italian and Albanian officials were unavailable for comment.

But Laureano compares that project to a $3.5 billion pipeline that Spain is building to pump water from the north to the dry south, which needs it for water-intensive hothouse agriculture. Laureano, who is Italy's representative to a special United Nations body seeking solutions to desertification, says such projects do not take into account the root causes of the catastrophe.

Besides extreme weather caused by global warming, Laureano says man's impact on the land is the primary cause of desertification. In Puglia, he says the land can no longer hold and absorb rain water because years of industrial farming have destroyed forests and flattened countryside, including removing ancient stonewalls, terrace farms, and rivulets which helped to mix land and water: "All this has created an agriculture that practically requires the land to be flat like billiard tables. So the land can no longer absorb and hold water. It is no longer capable of taking advantage of and benefiting from rainfall."

Industrial farming requires huge amounts of water. For example, Laureano says it takes 1,000 liters of water to produce a single egg, but the cost of that water is never reflected in the egg's market price. The result, he says, is inferior products with inflated prices that undermine tastier products grown by traditional methods.

But the overuse of water in agriculture has other effects. As underground water is used up, seawater seeps into the empty aquifers and salinizes the soil, which then requires chemical fertilizers to hold onto water. Those fertilizers and pesticides, in turn, do their own damage to the land, further stripping it of its ability to absorb rainfall.

Roberto Bertolini, an Italian, is an expert on water and health issues at the World Health Organization in Copenhagen. Bertolini compares what is happening in his country and elsewhere in Southern Europe to a disaster that he says is already irreversible -- the Aral Sea catastrophe: "The course of the rivers Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya have been deviated to feed with water the cultivation of cotton in large desert areas in Turkmenistan, in Uzbekistan. And basically now, the Aral Sea is disappearing."

Bertolini continues: "The pesticides and fertilizers which were used on the land in the previous decades, which deposited at the bottom of the Aral Sea, now are on the surface. And because of the wind and the changes in climate, these are carried toward the villages and the cities around, thus increasing the exposure of people to air pollution with chemical components. So it's a very difficult situation -- tragic, in a sense."

Laureano, whose philosophy to water management was inspired by studying man-made oases in the Sahara Desert for eight years, says the solution to desertification is not costly projects to pump water to farms in dry areas. He says farmers need to return to traditional, time-proven methods that require modest amounts of water and no chemicals.

The product prices from such farming may be higher, Laureano says, but with 70 percent of southern Italy facing imminent desertification, it's a small price to pay.