Back in Rome. The heat’s bearable, after weeks of tropical mugginess when most daytime hours could only be spent indoors. Many Romans are still on summer holidays, a godsend in terms of traffic and parking, but it won’t last long. September back-to-normal is fraught with a number of city-wide emergencies, and headlines are already bracing us for more upcoming public transportation upheavals. Garbage disposal blues seem to have melted into the back pages.
And strange to say, water rationing issues have disappeared from all and any pages.
Yet our water problems haven’t gone away. A huge panic was on in the second half of July, with talk of a drastic water-rationing plan set up by the municipally-controlled public utility: 8 hour rotating water-shifts across the various city zones. In a nutshell, because of an uncommonly dry year so far, Rome has been slowly draining away lake Bracciano, the large lake 50 km north of the city it depends on for part of its water. Levels dangerous for the survival of the plant and fish ecosystem and surrounding lake wildlife were apparently reached in July, and so Regional authorities decreed the capital had to stop getting part of its running water from the lake. Starting a week later.
The Vatican promptly turned off all its public fountain taps. The City of Rome did not (what would the tourists say?). All the fountains in Rome – the monumental ones, the decorative ones, the commemorative ones, in public piazzas, inside courtyards, immersed in the parks, on sidewalks – 2,000 odd, are still joyfully gushing forth, though now, a month later, there are rumours the Municipality is finally starting to turn some spigots off…
As the Regional governor and the Municipal Mayor are from opposite parties, the ensuing July political warfare was no surprise, and café and street-level comments were simply in denial anything would happen. Nobody gave water conservation a thought. As is so often the case in Italy, the cynics turned out to be right: a last-minute decision from the Lazio Regional Administrative Court acknowledged that the lake was in fact being very dangerously depleted, but not just by the Rome water utility, also by the protracted heat. So it decreed that the city could simply continue pumping water out of lake Bracciano. Logical?
I’ve over-simplified very complex issues. Factor in decades of systems disrepair and lack of maintenance, 40% wasted water, a national record – though a good part of these “pipe leaks” could well be due to the farms around the lake that tap into the system illegally.
The August holiday exodus put some pressure off the utility, with a drastic decrease in household water usage, but now we’re all coming back. Suffice it to say that with autumn rains, most people expect the situation to just “normalize” … painlessly.
Rains? Most reliable forecasts don’t see hide nor hair of any for weeks to come: Climate Change is not going away. Yet most Romans echo Ms. Mayor’s “Rome just can’t be left without water!”. Can’t, why? Apart from its vaunted 2,000 years of history, which do include having engineered the first comprehensive aqueducts, baths and water distribution systems throughout the Roman Empire, nowadays Rome sounds just like any of a plethora of cities all over the world in denial of the need to invest in and innovate their water utilities … until severe droughts actually strike. It’s a universal problem because it’s political, because it’s expensive and now there’s Climate Change*.
Political or not, I’ve lived in countries where water rationing and energy cuts were a seasonal hazard. So looking to September, I’ve got my water containers lined up. I’m not buying into the local entitled hubris of “Rome just can’t have its water rationed” just because we’ve lined up 2,000 years of history, ruins and fountains behind us.
*”Water 4.0 – The Past, Present, and Future of the World’s Most Vital Resourse” by David Sedlack (Yale University Press 2014)