Naples faces a growing hydrological crisis

Enrica writes*

When one thinks of Naples, one of the most vibrant, cultural and touristic metropolis of Italy, water scarcity is not the first thing that pops to mind. Perhaps one thinks of its complicated, bureaucratic system, or structural corruption and the ever-problematic persistence of organized crime which is increasingly augmenting throughout most of Italy. However, the southern capital of the Campania region of Italy is facing environmental, technical and economic pressures when it comes to its water management.

Water management is an important topic in Naples, where a 2011 referendum led to a public take over of the system. This switch meant that the main water supplier for the one million residents in the metropolitan area of Naples and its surroundings, Acqua Bene Comune (ABC) became municipality-owned, with the establishment of a monitoring committee, a board of directors comprised of users, people working in the organization, as well as members of environmental organizations. The company manages water distribution, including that of potable water and most recently that of sewage systems.

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The ABC faces challenges. Old pipelines and treatment systems suffer from leakages, but also service interruptions in the city and nearby regions. Short-term technical adjustments can address urgent issues, but a systematic solution will be required in order to tackle infrastructural problems that are common in Italy, where aqueducts  lose 40% of their water. In Naples, the average citizen uses around 155 liters a day in a system that loses 34% of its water.

The 2017 drought left marks of water scarcity. Climate projections suggest that water management will require substantial improvements in the coming decade, as precipitation decreases. Many economic activities in the region would have been hit by the ongoing climate pressures had these activities not been restricted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The agricultural sector was most profoundly affected in 2017 when the region experienced a shortage in water supply due to decreased precipitation. According to the environmental organization Legambiente, the agricultural sector is inefficient in its water management. Legambiente argues that a potential solution to more efficiently redistribute water and conserve water in the agricultural sector is by shifting towards more efficient systems of micro-irrigation.

Bottom line: Despite its abundance in water, Naples’s water systems face structural problems with old infrastructure, leaks, and falling supply due to decreasing precipitation trends that will only worsen with climate change.


* 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.

2 thoughts on “Naples faces a growing hydrological crisis”

  1. Hi Enrica! I learned a lot about the water situation in Naples!
    I have a few questions about some interesting points you raised in your blog post.
    You wrote that the aqueducts in Italy lose 40% of their water. Are aqueducts solely managed at the regional level? or is there an authority in charge of overseeing aqueducts at the national level? You also wrote that the agricultural sector was profoundly affected in 2017 due to low levels of precipitation. What are the major conflicts over the allocation of water in Naples?
    Finally, I would like to reflect on the limitations of micro-irrigation technology. Indeed, increase efficiency doesn’t necessarily lead to saving water resources as it can also increase demand. Do you think micro-irrigation is a viable option for Naples?

    1. Hello!
      The fact that so much water is lost through leakage in Naples really is insane! A great example of a municipality-owned utility which just can’t be bothered to invest more in infrastructure.
      I was wondering, if leakage is such a big problem, but wasteful agriculture as well, where does the water come from, is it mainly ground- or surface water, and what are the shares of agricultural vs domestic/industrial use? Meaning, which of the two should be prioritised, if funds are limited (i.e. helping farmers be more efficient or fixing pipes)?
      I must agree with Zayane that more efficient irrigation risks not solving the problem in the end because more crops will be grown instead. And it almost physically hurts to think about a system losing 34-40% of its water just through leakage – I can’t imagine this is economic anymore for the utility. Also, following the idea that ‘lost’ water may benefit someone else, if underground pipes leak so much, isn’t there a chance they will refeed into an aquifer again? (If there is a usable aquifer underneath of course…)

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