Sicily: the railway line that quenches the thirst of Catania’s Plain

The high-speed Palermo-Catania railway project includes a new water network that reduces to zero water leaks and waste

The inhabitants of the plain of Catania tell that it was the Arabs, in the distant ninth century after Christ, who cultivated them for the first time, but it is certain that since then and until today, Sicilian red oranges have remained an absolute excellence, known throughout the world precisely because they only grow in these lands, scorched by the sun but also made fertile by Mount Etna.

The towns around Mount Etna, those that rise at the foot of the volcano, are indeed the ideal places where this particular variety of oranges is cultivated, recognized with the IGP (Protected Geographical Indication) label. Therefore, it is both a land excellence and an important economic driving force. According to the Consortium of Sicilian Red Orange IGP, which brings together the majority of producing agricultural companies, the 35,000 annual tons of product generate an average turnover reaching 40 million euros. Hence, the sector represents a significant economic factor for the Catania plain but also a job opportunity for thousands of people.

However, climate change and the dramatic drought that – especially in recent years – has struck the island are creating enormous difficulties for farmers, who have to deal with water scarcity. In February, precisely, farmers sounded the alarm by announcing a possible 70% cut in summer orange productions.

The almost total absence of rainfall recorded between January and February convinced the Sicilian Region to declare a state of natural calamitydue to severe drought” throughout the regional territory, confirming that Sicily is one of the few regions in Europe classified as a red zone due to water resource scarcity.

To provide an immediate response to the problem, the Sicilian Region recently announced a series of interventions conducted by the Catania Reclamation Consortium that will serve to temporarily channel the waters of the Simeto River used in this way to irrigate the fields. Thanks to this intervention, according to the calculations of the Reclamation Consortium, 600 liters of water per second can be provided to the plain’s farmers, a supply available even in the summer months.

However, the water problem in Sicily is not exclusively linked to the absence of precipitation. One of the causes of its scarcity also lies in the region’s water infrastructure network, an old network where water losses can reach up to 60%.

New investments for the island's water infrastructure

Bringing water into citizens’ homes as well as into the fields where Sicilian red oranges are cultivated means being able to rely on an efficient and widespread water network, a dream for Sicily forced to deal with a highly complex situation where water infrastructures are old and in many ways inadequate. According to Istat, water losses in aqueducts average 52.5%, and water rationing measures have affected 16.7% of residents in provincial capital cities this year. Looking at the main cities, in Ragusa, the loss reaches 63%, in Syracuse 60%, in Catania 55.4%, and in Palermo 48.8%.

Hence, the need to intervene on infrastructures as the first response to drought and climate change. In this regard, an opportunity to seize is certainly represented by the funds of the National Recovery and Resilience Plan (PNRR). To date, procedures have been initiated in Sicily for the realization of ten large and medium-sized works, all funded by the PNRR and the Cohesion Development Fund (FSC). Among these, for example, is the construction of the new Marsala-Mazara-Petrosino aqueduct, designed to convey about 250 liters of water per second, but above all essential to solve the problem of the gradual salinization of the aquifer around Trapani.

PNRR interventions will therefore be fundamental. However, while waiting for them to be implemented, the region’s water network, especially that of the Catania plain, has benefited from a renewal intervention, unexpected for many, as it was born as a collateral activity to another infrastructural work: the construction of the high-capacity railway line that will connect Catania with Palermo by fast trains for the first time.

Webuild delivers 25 km of new water networks to Sicily

The story of how a train accelerated the renewal of Sicilian water infrastructure begins in 2022. We are in the Catania plain, at the Bicocca-Catenanuova construction site, where the construction of the high-capacity line connecting Catania with Messina and Palermo is underway, a strategic infrastructure that will forever change the island’s mobility.

During the excavations, a series of interferences between irrigation conduits, canals, and pipes with the route of the railway under construction emerge, and so, instead of simply moving the conduits, the proposal to take advantage of that opportunity to renew them is developed, initiating that process of renewal of the water network that Sicily deeply needs. The project is financed with an investment of 10 million euros from RFI (Italian Railway Network), and realized by Webuild (the Group building the new railway line and a world leader in the water sector) in collaboration with the Consortium for the Reclamation of the Sicilian Region.

The works begin in the autumn of 2022 and are just concluded these days with results in many ways unexpected. In the territories most affected by drought, precisely where red oranges are cultivated, 25 kilometers of new water pipes have been buried, thus bringing the dispersion to zero. The new pipes are made of spheroidal cast iron and high-density polyethylene (HDPE), which guarantees maximum hygienic standards for water transport and very high resistance to corrosion, traction, and impacts.

The intervention has also allowed for a more precise mapping of the pre-existing water network, indicating a path – that of renewing the water network – that can be taken in the coming years precisely to participate in the island’s modernization process.

Italian Delays and the Need for New Investments

The Sicilian problem is also an Italian problem. Although with different levels of criticality depending on regions and territories, the entire Peninsula is called upon to deal with drought and the need to modernize its water network.

On average in the last five years, the Italian water sector has invested 59 euros per inhabitant, 23 euros less than the average of the European Union and the United Kingdom combined, while the PNRR allocates only 4% of funds to the water sector. Italy has obsolete water infrastructure with water losses of over 40% in the distribution phase. A figure that makes Italy the fourth worst country in the European Union: 60% of its network is over 30 years old, and 25% is over 50 years old. Moreover, only 4% of wastewater is destined for agricultural reuse.

Hence the need for new investments and immediate interventions precisely because the blue gold and its correct management represent one of the paths for the country’s development.