Experts say southern Italy faces severe risk of drying up.
Rome, June 25 - The Sahara Desert is crossing the Mediterranean, according to Italian environmental protection group Legambiente which warns that the livelihoods of 6.5 million people living along its shores could be at risk.
''Desertification isn't limited to Africa,'' said Legambiente Vice President Sebastiano Venneri.
''Without a serious change of direction in economic and environmental policies, the risk will become concrete and irreversible.'' A recent report by Legambiente estimated that 74 million acres of fertile land along the Mediterranean were turning to desert as the result of overexploited land and water resources.
Legambiente said that southern Italy was at severe risk in addition to the islands of Sicily and Sardinia where 11% of all arable land showed signs of drying up. ''Semi-arid coastal regions like southern Italy are prone to the effects of desertification due to farmers' dependence on water from underground aquifers instead of rainfall,'' said Legambiente spokesman Giorgio Zampetti. According to Zampetti, pumping too much fresh water out of these underground deposits can result in seawater leaking in to replace it, effectively poisoning the groundwater.
As an example of the long-term consequences, Legambiente pointed to Egypt where it said brackish groundwater had compromised half the country's farmland.
''The south of Italy isn't the only part of the country at risk,'' added Zampetti. ''Aquifers around the Po Delta in northern Italy have also begun showing signs of saltwater contamination.'' Experts said that the Po River, which is Italy's longest waterway and nearly dries up in parts when industrial consumption peaks, is one of the most visible examples of desertifying climate change in Italy. Italy is not the only country in Europe losing fertile land.
Legambiente estimated that desertification affects more than a fifth of the Iberian Peninsula with early indicators also present along the French Riviera.
Across the Mediterranean, Legambiente said that countries like Libya, Tunisia and Morocco were losing 1,000 square kilometers of fertile land every year.
Legambiente experts predict that between 1997 and 2020, desertification will have forced over 60 million people in sub-Saharan Africa to leave their homes, many of whom will head north to Europe.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome ranks desertification among the chief causes of worldwide famine.
''In addition to destroying the biodiversity of ecosystems and exacerbating the problems related to global warming,'' said Sebastiano Venneri, ''desertification causes people to migrate, perpetuating a vicious cycle of social strife and overpopulation that has placed mankind's survival at risk.'' To turn back the tide on desertification, Legambiente is calling for drastic water conservation measures, particularly with regard to agriculture where it says flood irrigation is a chief culprit behind the exhaustion of local reservoirs.
Simple measures like collecting rainwater for use during drier periods could make the difference in protecting water resources, according to Legambiente...