Squeezing the Last Drops out of Sicily

by |May 23, 2011

Snowpack from Mt. Etna, in eastern Sicily, comprises much of Sicily's water supply. Photo by Ben Aveling via WikiCommons

If you were to drive south from Palermo, Sicily toward Monreale, you would be ringed in by green mountains, the sparkling white of ancient and modern buildings and the azure Mediterranean Sea receding behind you. Continuing south through the island’s mountainous interior, you would pass verdant agricultural fields on your way past Corleone, the namesake of one of cinema’s most likable villains, as the road snaked gradually toward Agrigento on the south coast. Aside from the occasional stone-walled hamlet perched atop a rocky mountaintop, there isn’t much development to speak of. Sicily has a few major industrial hubs, but most of the island’s land is dedicated to agriculture. Grapes, almonds, citrus fruit, and durum wheat — the basis for pasta — feed Sicilians, but are also exported abroad. But for all its greenery, the island is relatively arid.

Considered the most conquered island in the world, Sicily — the tri-cornered Mediterranean land mass which appears constantly poised to receive a mighty kick from Italy’s boot-shaped peninsula — has always been poor when compared with the rest of Europe. Part of the reason is natural. There isn’t much water on the island; farmers and urban water users have relied upon scarce, non-replenishable groundwater for centuries. But in an age when computerized monitoring and management systems can dole out water in the most efficient ratios possible, mismanagement and corruption are much to blame. Even after major mafia crackdowns after the late 1980s, mafiosi still exert significant control over resource use. In New York, where land and water are relatively plentiful, mafia activity may not seem like much of an issue, but in Sicily, where every drop of water and every square meter of land counts, power holders’ circumvention of regulations whenever possible is acutely felt by every one of the island’s nearly 2 million inhabitants.

Fishing is still a major Sicilian industry, but fishermen also rely upon grain and fruit crops produced on the island. Palermo, 2009. Photo by Benjamin Preston

Despite regulatory challenges (chief amongst them being enforcement), Sicily has a wealth of natural resources at its disposal. Average rainfall is about 600 mm per year — higher than Southern California, a climatically similar agricultural Mecca. Millennia of layered volcanic ash around Mount Etna and other, now presumably inactive volcanoes makes for nutrient-rich soil, and the craggy peaks climbing toward Etna’s pinnacle catch a decent amount of snowfall precipitation. About 75 percent of the island’s water feeds agriculture, with the rest apportioned to industry and urban use.

Thin lines divide various types of Sicilian water use, but during summer, when the Sahara Desert’s hot winds scare away rain clouds for significant periods of time, that delicate balance is challenged. Droughts are frequent, and additional strain is put on an over-exerted supply by illegal use of water. In the late 80s, when mafia crime was at an all time high, residents of Agrigento and other urban areas reported losing water pressure from the taps in their apartments for days on end during droughts. Federal authorities often found illegal siphons tapped into pipelines intended to carry water to cities. Now, authorities focus on regulating use, although enforcement continues to be difficult.

Additional strain could be placed on Sicily’s water supply if the planned Strait of Messina Bridge project comes to fruition, linking Sicily’s roadways with the mainland. Issues such as poor road quality on either side of the strait loom, but the increase in mobility for Sicilian agricultural exporters would likely increase pressure on farmers to produce. The potential for greater industrial development exists as well, and drawing too much groundwater to support those industries could not only starve population centers of drinking water, but lead to saltwater intrusion in coastal groundwater aquifers. Once an aquifer becomes contaminated with saltwater, restoring it is difficult and costly, and in some cases impossible.

Like other forms of infrastructure, older buildings have suffered from mafia mismanagement of industry. Agrigento, 2009. Photo by Benjamin Preston

Who knows what Sicily’s best option is for resource development. For centuries, the island’s fate has been to succumb to the avarice of a few powerful landowners. Most turn a blind eye. A recent conversation with a Frenchman, of all people — interestingly enough, the Normans were one of the groups to conquer Sicily, although they left behind a spectacular cathedral — raised the question of how an area with so many available resources could remain so stubbornly poor. The obvious conclusion is culture. When a population has been dominated by outside forces for so long (Normans, Moors, Spaniards, Northern Italians, mafiosi, fascists, Berlusconi…the list goes on and on), it stands to reason that people will resign themselves to taking whatever they’re handed and moving a little more slowly with it. That may be so, but perhaps accepting a bridge that seems likely to give more people less could be cause for a more heated response from Sicilians.

From what I know of Sicilian culture — my family comes from the small port city of Porto Empodocle, on the south coast — that scenario is unlikely. But Sicily’s problems shed light on a broader question: As global climate changes and groundwater supplies become more unstable, how long will people around the globe insist on creating mid-20th Century production models predicated upon unlimited water and petroleum supplies? Wouldn’t it be a better idea to use local resources in a manner consistent with natural barriers rather than waiting for some distant party — the European Union, perhaps — to come clamoring to the rescue with unsustainable development projects? This phenomenon can be seen all over the world, from Southern California to Libya, where water consumption outstrips local supply and bringing water in from other places has become more and more tricky. It will be interesting to see how the problematic Messina Brige project plays out, but I suspect that at some point, people will come to their senses and develop resources on a smaller, more realistic scale, in Sicily and elsewhere. By then there may be few available options, although my fatalistic approach to the problem can most likely be traced to many generations of maternal Sicilian ancestry thinking the same way. As Palermitan Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s Prince Fabrizio points out in The Leopard, “Tutto deve cambiare perché tutto rimanga lo stesso.” Everything must change in order for everything to remain the same.

Olives, almonds, and citrus fruits are grown in the valley between Agrigento and Porto Empedocle. Valle dei Templi, 2009. Photo by Benjamin Preston

Columbia Water Center demonstrates research-based solutions to global freshwater scarcity and climate-related water risks.  Follow Columbia Water Center on Facebook and Twitter

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Paolo Scicolone

Can I know your sources?