A system that treads water: the condition of water in Italy

Italy places third in Europe in the ranking of countries with the greatest water availability, behind only Sweden and France; yet, at the same time, we are the country with the highest per capita consumption of drinking water and the second highest consumption in agriculture. Yet another paradox, all Italian, clearly emerges from the study carried out by the Eurispes Institute on the state of water in Italy.

In our country, over 30 billion cubic metres of water are withdrawn every year for all kinds of uses. Italy ranks first among EU countries in terms of the quantity, measured in absolute terms, of fresh water withdrawn for drinking purposes from surface or underground bodies of water, while in terms of per capita withdrawals, with 155 cubic metres per inhabitant per year, it ranks second, preceded only by Greece (158) and followed by Bulgaria (118) and Croatia (113). Even looking at data on individual consumption of water from the tap, Italians prove to be the least virtuous population at European level with more than 220 litres per capita consumed daily against a European average of 123 litres per inhabitant per day. Valle d’Aosta is the region with the highest levels of individual consumption (438 litres per inhabitant per day), equivalent to more than double the national average, while all the northern regions, with the exception of Veneto, have consumption levels above the average. At regional level, the lowest values can be observed in Apulia (155), Umbria (166), Tuscany (171) and Basilicata (179).

In recent years, numerous studies concerning the water cycle have shown a steady reduction in the amount of renewable water on our territory. Climate projections conducted by ISPRA highlight the possible short-, medium- and long-term impacts of climate change on the hydrological cycle and water resource availability. The picture outlined by this analysis is not particularly reassuring, given that estimates of the reduction in annual water availability range from a minimum of 10% (short-term projection) in the case of adopting an aggressive mitigation approach in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, to a maximum of 40% (reaching up to 90% for some areas of Southern Italy) in the projection to 2100 in the case of maintaining current levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

On the subject of water resources, the main critical issue in our country concerns the presence of an antiquated and dysfunctional infrastructure system, conceived on the basis of the needs of the 1950s. From this point of view, the most emblematic example concerns water losses in the distribution network. These amounted to 42.2% of the volume of water injected in 2020, which is equivalent to a loss of 3.4 billion cubic metres of water each year. In other words, 157 litres of water per inhabitant are wasted every day in Italy, which is equal to the water needs of about 43 million people. In this regard, there are substantial differences between a North, which tends to be more virtuous, and a Centre-South where serious critical situations persist.

On a regional level, in fact, the highest losses occur in Basilicata (62.1%), Abruzzo (59.8%), Sicily (52.5%) and Sardinia (51.3%), and, with the exception of Marche (34.3%) and Tuscany (41.6%), all the central and southern regions have water loss levels above the national average. The situation is reversed in the North where water losses average 32.5% for the North-West and 37.8% for the North-East.

More specifically, in 57% of Italian municipalities there are leakage levels of more than 35% of the volume of water fed into the network. In just under half of these, leaks even exceed 55%. Among the provincial/metropolitan capital municipalities, only five have volume losses of less than 25% of the water injected into the network, and they are: Milan (17.6%), Aosta (23.9%), Ravenna (24%), Ascoli Piceno (24.2) and Pavia (24.9%). While ten are those with losses exceeding 60%: Latina (73.8%), Belluno (70.6%), Frosinone (69.5%), L’Aquila (68.3%), Potenza (63.9%), Ragusa (63%), Crotone (61.6%), Benevento (61.5%), Oristano (60.3%) and Siracusa (60%).

The modernisation and refurbishment of our water network is perhaps one of the most urgent elements to address in order to recover at least part of the 3.4 billion cubic metres that are literally lost to the environment every year. On the other hand, it is difficult to expect high levels of efficiency from a civil network 60% of which is at least 30 years old. Of this share, moreover, 25% are said to be over 70 years old, while in several historical Italian centres there are still pipes dating back to the post-unification period.

It is therefore becoming increasingly urgent to adopt climate change adaptation measures that favour a more rational and efficient use of the resources at our disposal. In this context, we must take note of the fact that the water crisis, experienced in several areas of the country, is not only due to an often momentary shortage of raw materials, but is rather an infrastructural crisis due to the lack of adequate systems and networks over the entire water cycle. In this regard, suffice it to think how Italy could recover, through the purification and reuse of wastewater, about 8.5 billion cubic metres of water (a little less than one third of the water consumed annually) to be used for agriculture and field irrigation.

Since 2012, there has been a gradual and steady increase in investments in the water network from 32 euro per inhabitant in 2012 to 49 euro per inhabitant in 2019, to 56 euro per inhabitant in 2021. This trend would seem to be confirmed by estimates for 2022-2023 when it is expected to reach 63 euro per inhabitant. Despite the upward trend, the level of investment continues to be far below the European average. At the European level, in fact, water service providers invest approximately 45 billion euro per year in infrastructure through tariffs, equivalent, on average, to just under 82 euro per inhabitant per year. Analysing the expenditure levels of individual European countries, it emerges that Norway with 226 euros per inhabitant per year is the country that invests the most in water infrastructure, followed by Great Britain with 135 euros/inhabitant and Sweden with 109 euros. In Germany and France, on the other hand, the average expenditure per inhabitant is 80 and 88 euros respectively.

A three-speed Italy emerges for the amount of investment in water infrastructure: in 2021 the level of investment in the Centre was 75 euro per inhabitant, followed by the North-East with 56 euro, the North-West with 53 and the South where it stopped at 32 euro. The data for the South is mainly explained by the fact that in this area of the country, management services in economy (in which local authorities directly manage the water service) continue to dominate. The 79% of Italian municipalities where the management of at least one of the services is in economy is in the South, and in this type of management the annual investments stop at 8 euros per inhabitant per year. Finally, it should be noted that investment capacity is closely linked to the tariff level which, in our country, remains among the lowest in Europe. Figures for the two-year period 2017-2109 show that the average expenditure incurred by an Italian family was around 320 euros per year, equivalent to less than one euro per day. Again, these figures are significantly lower than the 500 euro per family paid in France and Great Britain or the more than 900 euro per year paid by a Norwegian household.

Unless investments are made to promote the capture, storage, transport, distribution, purification and reuse of water, there is a risk of chronicising the problem by making the lack of water a structural issue, as is happening in other areas of the planet. This risk is already evident in the South, where the dilapidation or total absence of networks (think, for example, of the levels of water dispersion in the South or the lack of connections to the sewage system in part of Sicily), added to the apparent inability of the managing bodies to make the necessary investments, create conditions of water stress, often aggravated by the lack of availability of the resource.

The study can be downloaded by




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