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 These supply problems are triggering losses up to 47.9% of the withdrawn water volumes.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 The water is withdrawn in the Acea infrastructure of Cittaducale, on the lower slope of the mountain where the aqueduct is born.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 🙂