We pedaled along the River Po for 24 days so we could see it closely from its beginning to its end, when it divides into many channels taking it to the sea. Our aim was to examine the state of health of this grand old river.
The diagnosis of two environmental organizations (Golder Associates and Nautilus) and a scientific committee (Ezio Pelizzetti, Silvano Focardi, Pier Francesco Ghetti and Silvestro Greco), is that the chemical quality of the water is generally good, but the real problem lies in the sediments, which are poisoned by metal and pesticide residues. In addition, the channeling of the river and significant human interventions on flood beds have reduced its capacity to purify itself.
A vast area is affected by the river. Sixteen million people, 4 million cows and over 5 million pigs live in the Po Valley: scientific studies say that the impact in the catchment is equivalent to a population of 114 million inhabitants.
This area produces 38% of the Italian GDP and the river is subjected to unsustainable stress. Various sectors are responsible for its degradation but agriculture alone produces 33% of the pollution, in the form of pesticides and nutrients (particularly nitrogen and phosphorus). But this is only one factor, another serious problem is irrigation, which is managed inefficiently and wastes up to 25% of the water taken, as it evaporates before reaching the crops.
All this, together with a temperature rise of 2.5° C in the last 30 years and low rainfall—reduced by 20% in 20 years—has decreased the flow of the river. This reduction has particularly affected the last stretch, where sea water flows upstream and gets as much as 25 km inland from the delta, making the water and the land unusable for an area estimated at around 20,000 hectares and changing the natural habitat of plants and animals.
The situation is serious but not irreversible. Greater attention to the use of water resources, the creation of a single authority for the catchment and a return to natural flood beds would give some new life to this old river and would prevent the loss of products and traditions which have made the Po Italy’s most important river, and not just due to its length.
First published in La Stampa on 22/10/2007
Adapted by Ronnie Richards