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Sicily’s only natural lake drying up as island grapples with drought

July 9, 2024 11:18 AM IST

Italy | drought | Lake Pergusa | Sicily | Natural Lake | Europe

A severe drought in Sicily has nearly dried up the Mediterranean island’s only natural lake which has long served as a vital resting station for birds migrating between Africa and Europe.

Sicily has suffered months of below-average rainfall, with the Italian government declaring a state of emergency over the crisis, which has devastated crops and desiccated pastures.

Lake Pergusa, part of a natural reserve close to the central Sicilian town of Enna, has shrunk dramatically because of a lethal mix of hot weather and low rains, scientists said.

“The lake is no longer there. The part of the water that was visible has completely disappeared, apart from this puddle,” said Giuseppe Maria Amato, from environmentalist group Legambiente, pointing to a pool of water.

Sicily has long grappled with climate change-related high temperatures, setting a European heat record in 2021 of 48.8 degrees Celsius (119 degrees Fahrenheit), and a number of towns have had to introduce water rationing.

Drought crises have hit elsewhere in Europe in recent years, including in France and Spain, especially affecting the Mediterranean area where the average temperature is now 1.5C higher than 150 years ago.

“Lake Pergusa is an indicator of what Sicily is suffering due to climate change,” Amato said, saying a lack of maintenance and a poor sewage system were exacerbating the emergency.

The lake’s surface normally covers 1.8 square km (0.7 square miles) and has no rivers flowing in or out of it. It appears in the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses where it is described as a place of beauty and “eternal spring”.

“TRULY CATASTROPHIC”

But such times are long gone. Scientists believe the drought risks to permanently damage biodiversity around the lake which along with the migratory birds is home to fish, molluscs and micro-invertebrates.

“The total drying-up and a failure to replenish the water in the autumn would be truly catastrophic. We have to recognise that climate change is having an impact. It is beginning to cause irreversible damage,” said climate specialist Luigi Pasotti.

Pasotti said just 250 mm (9.8 inches) of rain fell in the last 12 months on Sicily, an underdeveloped region where agriculture is crucial for the economy.

Lake Pergusa is not directly involved in supporting local agriculture but water shortage is harming the sector in central areas, where farmers are struggling to refill their reservoirs that are running dry or operating at very low levels.

Fruit crops, such as peaches and olives, risk failing, forcing business to buy water at very high prices which can soon prove unsustainable, local farmers’ associations said.

Gerardo Forina, the head of agricultural lobby Coldiretti around Enna, said the situation was “absolutely terrible,” especially for livestock breeders.

“We face the risk of having to slaughter animals due to the lack of water,” he said. “I cannot remember a year as dry as this one.”

(Reuters)

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