The legendary waterway is drying up. Travelling its length, Tobias Jones uncovers its fascinating history

Since it flows entirely in Italian territory – rising a few hundred metres inside the French-Italian border in the Cottian Alps and heading east until it reaches the Adriatic Sea just south of Venice – the Po is part of the national psyche. The poet Guido Ceronetti once wrote: “You need to understand the Po to understand Italy,” but now – as northern Italy faces its worst drought in 70 years – the river is also a prism through which to glimpse the country’s ecological emergency.

It has, in some places, completely disappeared this summer. Next to Saluzzo, upstream of Turin, I walked from one bank to the other without wetting my feet. There was only white gravel with buddleia where the “great river” was supposed to be. The Po has 141 tributaries, so further downstream the river does return. But two weeks ago, in late June, the flow measured at Pontelagoscuro, near Ferrara, fell below an average of 145 cubic metres per second (the historic average flow for June is 1,805 cubic metres per second). At Cremona – roughly halfway along the Po – the water is currently more than 8 metres (26ft) below “hydrographic zero”.

On Monday, the Italian government declared a state of emergency in five northern regions – Emilia-Romagna, Lombardy, Piedmont, Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia. Power stations and spas have been closed, ornamental fountains in Milan have been shut and daytime hosepipe bans are in place because water is simply evaporating faster than it falls.

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