Analysis-Wasted water saps battle against Italy's worst drought in decades

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Wasted water dampens battle against Italian drought, in Pontinia
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By Crispian Balmer and Angelo Amante

LATINA, Italy (Reuters) - Vast swathes of land south of Rome were boggy swamps for thousands of years until a monumental drainage programme in the 1930s turned malaria-infested marshes into prime agricultural fields.

Fast forward 90 years and, where water was once abundant, now it is growing scarce as one of the worst droughts in living memory fuelled by weeks of scorching temperatures has drastically reduced the flow of local springs.

But ageing infrastructure and leaky pipes are exacerbating an already disastrous situation, with much precious water vanishing down the drain before it even reaches the taps.

"The management of water infrastructure in Italy has been appalling," Roberto Cingolani, minister for ecological transition, told Reuters. "Our pipes lose on average 42% of the water they carry. In Israel that figure is closer to 3%. Our losses cannot be justified."

In the province of Latina, 60-km (37 miles) down the coast from Rome, 70% of drinking water gets lost in transit, the second worst ratio in the country, according to a report released this month by business lobby Confartigianato.

Latina's local water company, Acqualatina, says some of the missing water is illegally siphoned off, or else is consumed by households that refuse to let their meters be checked. But an estimated 50%-60% dissipates from brittle, cracked pipes.

"The leaks are not caused by carelessness, but because the network is really old. Almost half of it was laid down more than 50 years ago," said Marco Lombardi, the CEO of the firm, which is part-owned by French utility Veolia Environnement.

The company, created in 2002, carries out more than 10,000 repairs a year on its 3,500-km network, plugging myriad holes to lift low water pressure that can blight homes and businesses. But doing so often causes decrepit pipes elsewhere on the network to burst, turning repairs into a game of whack-a-mole.

WATER RATIONING

In an effort to counter what is a nationwide crisis, the government has earmarked 4.4 billion euros ($4.5 billion) from a European Union pandemic recovery fund to use over the next four years on improving water management.

Some 900 million euros will go towards fixing water leakages and 880 million will help upgrade irrigation systems for agriculture.

The money cannot come soon enough for Stefano Boschetto, who runs a family farm on the fertile Latina plains.

He has invested millions of euros in greenhouses, where he grows Kiwi fruit, salads, cucumbers and melons. But his crops are suffering from the drought and subsequent water rationing, which halts irrigation for two days a week.

"It seems strange that we are talking about a lack of water in an area like this. But in reality, things change, and they change quickly," he said.

The main problem was a reduction in water coming from the region's springs, but faulty pipes were also taking a toll. In addition, Boschetto said the sector was missing out by failing to capture rain, which is often torrential in spring and autumn, and then recycling it during the parched summer months.

The government estimates that capturing a quarter of Italy's annual rainfall would cover the needs of the nation's farmers and is planning to use some of the EU cash to construct dozens of reservoirs to store rainwater run-off.

The local Acqualatina potable water company has also turned to the EU fund for help, applying for 40 million euros to finance some of its own upgrade projects. But it acknowledges that this is a drop in the ocean compared with what is needed.

"To completely redo all our network would cost 1 billion euros," said CEO Lombardi, adding that his company had plunged almost 300 million euros into infrastructure projects over the past 20 years.

LOW TARIFFS, HIGH USAGE

Much investment in Italy's water system is funded by utility company revenues, which derive from some of the lowest tariffs in Europe - limiting the scope for financing.

Italians pay on average barely 2 euros per cubic metre of water, according to data from the European federation of water associations. Households in neighbouring France pay twice that, while in Denmark the cost is 9.32 euros.

Unsurprisingly, household water consumption in Italy is the highest in the EU, totalling nearly 250 litres per person per day. In France the figure is 150 litres while in Denmark it is just 105 litres.

Antonio Terra, the mayor of Aprilia, in Latina, has urged his citizens to cut back on water usage as the drought bites, threatening fines for people using fresh water to fill their swimming pools, clean cars or hose gardens.

But the town's ancient pipes are complicating life.

"We could actually put more water through the system, but we cannot pump it at the correct pressure because we have to avoid the pipelines from bursting," he told Reuters.

For the farmer Boschetto, such headaches were avoidable, if only the authorities had acted years ago.

"As a country, we always wait for things to crash and only at that point do we get organised," he said. "But if things were done ahead of time, with clear ideas, you wouldn't always have this feeling we are hurtling towards the ground."

($1 = 0.9820 euros)

(Additional reporting by Giuseppe Fonte; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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