Water infrastructure, the Cinderella of Italy’s NRRP

Erasmo D’Angelis: Water infrastructure investment has been ignored by the Italian state for too long

Erasmo D’Angelis

Erasmo D’Angelis is an expert on water and water infrastructure. He was Undersecretary at Italy’s Infrastructure and Transport Ministry from 2013 to 2014 and lead the team for hydrogeological instability at the Prime Minister’s Office from 2014 to 2017. In 2022 he published the book “Italy’s Waters: an extraordinary biography of a basic resource. How much we have, how we use it, how much we waste, how to save it during climate change.”


How important is water to the Italian economy today?

“It is clear that water has been associated with nature, symbolism, feelings, and life since the time of the Sumerians, the Etruscans, but especially the Romans. Water is also ingenuity, it is labor, it is constant work, and it is an industry. But Italy has a problem regarding the entire industrial water cycle, and it is a problem that cannot be postponed or dumped on the shoulders of future generations, given the climate conditions we are experiencing and the need to adapt to these conditions.”


How far behind is Italy in terms of investment?

“We are talking about a public asset that since the 1994 Galli Law onwards, for about 30 years, has been ignored by the state in terms of public funding. In Italy’s annual spending budgets for the state, the regions, and municipalities, you won’t find the word “water,” “investment,” or “water infrastructure.”

Hence so many of the problems we are seeing today. If water has disappeared from the public funding agenda, consequently the whole issue of infrastructure also disappears. People have taken for granted that water has to arrive in their homes with a magic wand, when in fact delivering water as a service requires an industry of production, of investment, of technologies.”


But has water really disappeared from public funding?

“The disappearance of water from the public funding agenda is clearly seen in Italy’s National Resilience and Recovery Plan (NRRP), the EU-backed Covid recovery plan. This massive €198 billion ($201 billion) investment plan only dedicates 1-2% of the total investment to water.

Of course, hydroelectric production — the renewable energy that we Italians also invented — is almost zero at this point. Whereas in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Italy was the country of renewables, of water power, of dams, and many dams were built for this purpose.”


So much water, so little infrastructure. Is this an Italian paradox?

“The real paradox is that this is the country of water. There is no country like Italy in the world that has all the forms of water that exist on the planet. We have glaciers (those that still haven’t melted), snowfields, waterfalls, rivers, streams, and aquifers of all kinds; we have lakes, ponds, ponds, even marshes that are now protected because they are extraordinary ecosystems. And then, of course, the sea.

In recent days, this paradox has appeared clearer than ever. We are among the top four or five countries in the world for water availability, and yet we easily succumb to water crises. Why? Because we are poor in infrastructure and technology for all water uses.

We have an average of about 305 billion cubic meters of rain per year, which is significantly higher than England, Germany, France, which we think of as countries where it rains the most. In reality, the country where it rains the most is Italy, and the rainfall capital is Milan.”


Is wastewater reuse a very common technology in Italy?

“Italy boasts some of the most advanced water purifiers in Europe, but despite this, we throw over 9 billion cubic meters of water that escapes from the purifiers into the sea after use in our homes or offices.

Other European countries use their sewage water to cultivate and irrigate. In Italy we do not. Next June, the EU will fine us on this issue as well. We are already paying four EU sanctions totaling €165,000 ($168,000) every day.  That’s almost €60 million ($61 million)  a year of sanctions for the lack of sewage treatment in some Italian regions. Basically, in some southern regions, three out of ten Italians still today are not connected to a sewage treatment plant or even a sewage system.”


How leaky is the network that brings water to Italians’ homes?

“In Italy we have a total of about 600,000 kilometres (373,000 miles) of water networks and about 1 million kilometres (621,400 miles) of sewer networks that lose about 40% of the water they carry. In the South, we put in more than two litres (0.52 gallons) to get just under a litre to the taps. European losses are around 8-10%.

Water is strictly dependent on infrastructure and the investments you make: the fewer investments you make, the more obsolete the networks become. There are no repairs, no replacements. This is a sector that today needs at least 50,000 kilometres (31,000 miles) of new distribution networks to replace outdated pipelines. We need to start a debate. This is a sector where resources and funding are needed, and this funding needs to be provided by convincing the EU to include it in investment plans for Italy.”


What other technologies can foster better management of water resources?

“Another area that we must look at is desalination. Desalination is a solution that can be adopted in Italy where there are no other resources available.

We have some areas in the South, and on the islands, where there is no water underground, where rainfall is scant, and where there is a perennial emergency. Intelligent desalination both on land and on floating vessels that can be transferred from one area to another in case of drought has to be one of the solutions that we have to put in place.

We need to rediscover the spirit that in the 1960s allowed us to make the first big leap on infrastructure with water schemes, especially in the South, but also in the North and central regions, which allowed us to modernise this sector.

We have been at a complete standstill for at least three decades. We need to get started again, and desalination is one solution.”