Rome’s ration running out

Irene writes*

Ancient Rome’s water engineered infrastructures were based on the assumption that water was abundant and accessible. Those infrastructures, built in third century BC, still carry large volumes of water into the city. Growing water scarcity will be the biggest threat to the planet in the next decade. Despite Rome being the only city, out of all European capitals, with a sustainable water supply system, namely the water table recharging faster than the city can use, Italy is still projected to be under high water stress (40-80%) by 2040.

While Italy is hit by a drought in July 2017, Rome undergoes an unprecedented event: shutting down its public drinking fountains. More than a problem of water quantity, that action symbolized the transition from an era of abundance to an era of scarcity. On top of the drought itself, major issues are threatening Rome’s prosperous waters: pollution, poor quality streams and aquifers, natural levels of dissolved elements and compounds, subsidence and salinization, and groundwater flooding. Neglect of water management has been the main alert of approaching scarcity. The real problem will not be drinking water per se but the waste of water caused by leakages in the pipeline system. These supply problems are triggering losses up to 47.9% of the withdrawn water volumes.

The city of Rome depends on Aqueduct Peschiera for 70% of its total supply of 1,4 million m³ per day (9,000 liters a second) in normal conditions. The water is withdrawn in the Acea infrastructure of Cittaducale, on the lower slope of the mountain where the aqueduct is born. This is one of the biggest hydrological systems in the world dedicated exclusively to spring water. The impact of water rationing is causing millions in agricultural damages that, as a domino effect, are driving farmers out of business. Moreover, according to charities like the Red Cross, rationing water poses a major threat to homeless people and a growing number of migrants.

Politicians ordered the utility Acea to stop withdrawing water from Lake Bracciano, a recreational lake which, despite being just 8% of Rome’s water supplies, it is still a major source of drinking water for the city. Although Acea had promised to work to repair water pipes in order to avoid rationing of water, Environment Minister Gian Luca Galletti said “we cannot waste anymore time”.

In order to fight future water scarcity, the focus needs to be redirected to fixing infrastructure. To do that, lessons should be learned from the Ancient Roman engineers. Solutions like private rain water harvesting, recycling water in public fountains, or rethinking their infrastructure system will help avoiding major shortages in the future.

Bottom line: The drought period of 2017 was a wake-up call, not just for the Eternal city but for every city around the world coping with a changing climate, to re-think their water management strategies. Rome might lose its role as a model of sustainable water supply. If Rome cannot manage its abundant resources, how will other cities cope? Rome must act to reverse its water mismanagement.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

3 thoughts on “Rome’s ration running out”

  1. It was very interesting for me to read this because I learnt so much. I lived in Rome for a year (between 2017 and 2018) and I did in fact realize that one by one the water fountains (which we all used every time we were out of our building) were stopped. What really made me realize this was that there was one right in front of the school, so I saw it everyday, thus noticing every time is was closed. I did think it was for water management concerns, but I had no idea that it was because of the drought as you explained.
    I really liked that you mention the impact that the shutting down of the fountains has on a social level, and not only for the Romans. I also enjoyed reading about the solutions, and I find it somewhat funny that they lay in Ancient Roman practices, it really shows that no matter how advanced as a society we are, we remain so vulnerable and need to remember our roots and sustainable management (which was indeed not really an issue before).
    This is going to be a very interesting paper to read, good luck!

    1. Dear Lenaide,
      Thank you so much for this valuable insight. The fact that, while living in Rome in the exact timeframe of the drought, you could not give an explanation to why drinking fountains were being shut down makes imagine how the entire population could have felt seeing their own accessible supplies being cut off from one day to another. Being a city of 3 million inhabitants, the social impacts of such a decision are massive. They trigger turmoils and dissatisfaction. One lens that my paper will have would definitely take into account the perceptions of Romans in regards to water rationing. Moreover, I would be interested in understading if, for the most part, they have a sense of what is causing this rationing . In regards to engeneered water infrastructures, Ancient Romans have to be given a lot of credit. All in all we are just “dwarfs on the shoulders of the giants” as Isaac Newton wisely said. We do not have to forget the great achievements of the past in order to tackle present challenges.

  2. I found it quite interesting to read about this water scarcity issue because it’s not the first thing to come to mind when one thinks about water scarcity. The fact that the fountains were shut down is such a powerful indicator of the problem facing many modern societies. As we see in more cities facing water scarcity, the needed measures are often not glamourous. Thus it must take some “courage” for a government to turn off Rome’s fountains as they are such a symbol for the city, even though it makes complete sense economics wise. I really enjoyed that you mention this social compartment of the issue, as these are vital in understanding why a problem is persisting even though measures seem clear. Furthermore I found it really interesting that you relate back to the roots of the city, in which there was indeed an abundance. To learn that the water issue at hand is more an infrastructure issue, than purely a water issue is fascinating to me. It would seem that especially in times of scarcity, the measure to be taken is to improve the infrastructure. Especially since the the scarcity in Rome is thus “unnecessary”. What I would advice you is to maybe elaborate on the economic principle explaining why shutting off the fountains is an obvious measure. It would be interesting to connect this issue to willingness to pay and willingness to accept; as I suspect many wouldn’t pay much for the fountains, but they would want a high price for shutting the fountains of due to the social connection to them.

    This is going to be a very interesting paper to read, good luck!

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