"Just the fountains are enough to justify a trip to Rome," said British poet Percy Bysshe Shelly.
He would probably be disappointed if he could see those fountains today. A harsh water crisis left Rome's famous fountains dry, with water rationing for residents being seriously considered.
Growing up in Rome, I had the privilege to live in the city with the most public fountains in the world. For centuries Rome has been known for its arcing fountains and public baths, enabled by a favorable natural environment and ingenious engineering. By 97 A.D., Rome was served by nine aqueducts carrying an estimated one million cubic meters of water per day.
Today, Romans receive only half as much water per capita. The present crisis reflects conditions that policymakers must address now lest they become the new normal.
From Ancient Plenty to a Thirsty Present
Rome's water system provides 1.4 million cubic meters of water each day (370 million gallons; that adds up to 500 million cubic meters or 132 billion gallons per year) to 3.7 million habitants, with most of it originating in distant springs. Seventy percent of Rome's water comes through a single aqueduct from a source 80 miles away.
Romans enjoy extremely pure mountain water, which is problematic when springs dry up. This year saw the second-hottest spring of the past 200 years in Italy, with temperatures 3.2 degrees Celsius (5.8 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than normal average, associated with a strong decrease in rainfall.
Data on WRI's Aqueduct platform shows Rome is in an area of medium to high overall water risk, with an extremely high level of baseline water stress. This indicator measures the ratio of total annual water withdrawals to total available annual renewable supply. Higher values indicate more competition among users.
Lake Bracciano, a backup source from which the city gets 8 percent of its water, has been tapped over its normal capacity and is drying up at an alarming rate, with levels now so low that no water can be withdrawn without impacting the lake's ecosystem. Without that supply, Rome's water service company proposed to cut supplies for eight hours a day for 1.5 million residents, causing a political dispute between regional and local administrations.
While resources are short, too much water is wasted or inefficiently used. 44.4 percent of water is lost to leaks. And apart from public fountains, which have systems in place allowing the re-use of water for non-drinking purposes, there are several cases of less virtuous uses: one example is urban agriculture, still a widespread practice in Rome. The agricultural sector, which has suffered mightily from this drought, is also contributing to water scarcity in the region, as it relies on obsolete irrigation systems.
How to Avoid Crisis in the Future
It hasn't always been this way. Thousands of years ago, aqueducts provided Romans with plentiful water. Thanks to that innovation, and many since, there is a tendency in Rome to consider water an endless resource. Here are three stepping stones to consider as the city draws on its history of clever water management to confront the present crisis:
Invest in infrastructure. The current water system serving Rome needs critical interventions to contain water loss and renew structures. A quarter of the city's pipes are more than 50 years old. Current investments are well below the per capita need; it would take 250 years to renew the whole system at the current pace. Such investments would also represent an occasion to boost the local and national economy. Other examples of cities around the world demonstrate how it is possible to save money and generate profits by investing in natural infrastructure for water.
Make Rome drought-resilient with forward-looking policies. Take El Paso, Texas, which has beaten the worst drought in a generation with simple but efficient measures such as reducing the water sprayed on gardens by replacing thirsty plants and offering rebates to install more efficient air-conditioning systems, washing machines and toilets. Legislation at the national and local level shouldn't be limited to contingency measures, such as the ordinance recently introduced by the Rome Municipality to ban the use of drinking water for other uses, but should look at scenarios that take advantage of periods of abundance.
- Adopt a circular economy model for water. To address current and future shortages, a paradigm shift is needed in the way water is used and re-used to make sure water retains full value after each use and eventually flows back into the system. Recent technological advances have made possible a circular water economy where businesses enhance productivity, consumers benefit from lower costs of ownership and natural capital is relieved from pressure.
Rome wasn't built in a day. Nor will water stress be solved overnight. Nevertheless, it is exactly from a crisis that can come out a new model of prosperity, making the Eternal City ready for the global water challenge of the future.