Italy has a rich and diverse water heritage, thanks to the presence of many rivers, lakes, basins and acquifers.
Italy is first in the ranking for availability of water resources with an annual average of 159.9 billion cubic meters. However, it is important to highlight that this is an absolute availability, whereas the real availability (including only the actual usable water) is closer to 60 billion. The quantity is also added a very high quality considering that 85% of the water comes from naturally protected aquifers (against a European average of 62%).
This wealth has been managed over the years through the Integrated Water System (SII in Italian), a network of infrastructures, technologies, rules and institutions that deal with the collection, distribution, treatment and disposal of water. There are about 2,200 managing companies operating on national territory, of which 10% have a public majority and look after 85% of the Italian population. These operators are accountable to state istitutions, such as the ministries (MASE and MIMS), Arera (the organization that controls tariffs) and the Regions, and manage one or more phases of the water cycle.
The phases are generally divided into :
- Collection – Water from natural cycles
- Potabilization – Water treatment for civil and industrial use
- Supply – Passage from the sampling points (drinking water) to the reservoirs
- Distribution – Waterworks for consumer distribution
- Sewerage – Return waste water collection
- Purification – Disposal of sludge and removal of pollutants
- Reuse – Wastewater and rainwater reuse
It is a complex and extremely important system, which presents critical issues that pose serious problems for environmental sustainability, economic and social situation of the country and consequently make it extremely vulnerable to situations of water emergency such as those we are facing. Compared to 20 years ago, in fact, Italy has about 20% less water resources available, as the most hydrovorous country in Europe.
The challenges can be summarized as follows:
- Planning and land management
Italy is divided into different territorial areas (ATO), and according to regulations, all phases of the water cycle should be carried out by a single regional operator. However, this practice is not followed, as multiple public and private entities with old concessions exist within the same area. This situation leads to significant territorial inequalities in terms of efficiency, both at the local level, where individual phase optimizations may result in overall inefficiency, and at the national level, where there is a lack of sharing best practices due to limited communication and collaboration among fragmented parties.
- Inadequate infrastrucutre
Many of Italy’s water infrastructures are outdated and have not been adequately maintained and upgraded over the years. Nearly two-thirds of the infrastructure is over 30 years old, and a quarter exceeds 50 years. This results in water loss along distribution channels, interruptions in water services, low efficiency in wastewater treatment systems, and a lack of prevention against floods and extreme weather events. In such cases, the water loss is significant, with an estimated 47% of water input into the distribution system being lost (compared to the European average of 25%).
- Governance and investments
The management system is particularly intricate, involving both public and private operators within fragmented areas managed by regional authorities, which respond to two different ministries and the regulatory authority (Arera) for pricing. Additionally, there are consortia and water-intensive industries. This complexity leads to delays in implementing investment plans, exceeding the planned timelines by more than 83% (1,080 days vs. 590 days). Despite the need for significant financial resources, current investments are limited, with a per capita expenditure of €46 (compared to the European average of €82).
These challenges pose serious problems to the environmental, economic, and social sustainability of the country. The optimal solution could be the establishment of a dialogue among all the main public and private actors, coordinated by an impartial institutional body.
This would bring great advantages, including:
- Greater collaboration at the national level through meetings, consultations, and activities among various stakeholders and sectors, thereby increasing dialogue and efficiency throughout the entire water management chain.
- Increased focus on planning and land management with the aim of reducing territorial inequalities in the distribution and quality of water resources, while also seeking to unify management approaches.
- An efficient investment plan that targets the redevelopment and modernization of water infrastructure through targeted interventions in the most critical points of the supply chain. This plan should involve both major players and small private entities to cover the responsibility for the entire infrastructure, from aqueducts to household taps, considering the limited economic availability.
- Increased involvement of institutions, promoting transparent and efficient governance that is participatory and primarily focused on strategic resource management at the national level, without neglecting environmental and social aspects.
Only through a serious and continuous commitment from both institutions and civil society, along with the implementation of innovative processes aimed at transforming the entire supply chain, can we ensure sustainable management of water resources in respect of the environment and future generations.