Landscapes of drought. Future scenarios between agriculture and land aptitudes

From Firenze University Press Journal: Ri-vista

University of Florence
4 min readMay 7, 2024

Gianni Lobosco, Università degli Studi di Ferrara

Lorenzo Tinti, Architecture Department, University of Ferrara

Beatrice Magagnoli, Architecture Department, University of Ferrara

The management of unproductive agricultural areas in the territory of the Reclamation Consortium of FerraraAgriculture and rural landscape are the cause and effect of a symbiotic process (Pasini, 2018) whose balance is essentially based on the abundance or scarcity of water resources. Reclaimed lowlands are shaped to dynamically manage both these con-ditions through infrastructures that ensure safety (drainage) and productivity (irrigation) at the same time. In the last few decades, the detrimental impact of climate change on the frequency and intensity of atmospheric precipitations is threatening the agricultural sector, accelerating soil degradation phenomena (Mahato, 2014). At the same time, the optimization of satellite-based information could represent soon a game-changer for agriculture pro-viding a suite of real-time decision support systems (Diak, 1998) enabling, for example, the assessment of water resources or soil productivity (Jung et al., 2021). Although the processing of high-resolution data remains a challenging task when applied to large-scale case studies, such promising tool need to be tested since, as in the present research, it can outline alternative paths to a more resilient man-agement of the rural landscape. The project presented in the following pages was developed on the jurisdiction of the Reclamation Consortium of Ferrara (RCF) whose landscape can be described as a performing hybrid between nature and technology where water drainage and lifting operations are supported by a widespread hy-draulic infrastructure that gives the percep-tion of a stable and safe territory while, as a matter of fact, it hides a very delicate artificiality. The net-work of canals stretching across the plain has dic-tated, over the centuries, the rules of human settlement on the area, leading to a progressive detachment from pre-existent landforms deeply charac-terised by the presence of water. The different density, rhythm and articulation of the landscape pat-terns reflect the way and periods in which reclamation works have been made. The increasing vast-ness and recurrence of farming plots, their spatial arrangement and shape, clearly show how the modern mechanization has almost completely obliterat-ed those subtle variations in morphology and soil texture that especially in lowland contexts are essential for biodiversity and landscape variety. Now-adays, with a few notable exceptions (like the Co-macchio Valleys), the landscape of water within the Ferrara plain coincides almost entirely with a free-standing hydraulic infrastructure superimposed to the territory. Nevertheless, beneath this mesh traces of less rigid and repetitive patterns — composed by palaeodunes, ancient shorelines, levees and infilling channels — are still detectable and can represent the implicit driver to re-establish more sustainable relationships with water, both in functional, ecological, and cultural terms.Such opportunity is even more significant if we ana-lyse the paradoxical circumstances that have turned the present ultra-efficient drainage (and defensive) system into an unintended wastage device. In fact, the RCF moves every year 235.670.000 m3 of wa-ter for irrigation purposes and 349.100.000 m3 for drainage. These numbers indicate that a significant amount of water would already be available to com-pensate for drought if it were not, as is currently the case, immediately discharged into the sea. Nowa-days, only a few areas are dedicated to water storage, and most of them are connected to the drain-age network but not to the irrigation one. The chal-lenge for the future is to gradually improve similar systems to respond to changing climate conditions and compensate for periods of water stress.In this context, the research question was straight-forward: can we address increasing seasonal wa-ter shortages and flooding events by ‘giving up’, and transforming, low-productive croplands? Before even discussing this hypothesis, it is worth mentioning that there is an internal debate within many consortia concerning the convenience — or not — of decommissioning hydraulic systems in proven under-productive and highly sunken districts. Al-though an increasing number of studies endorse this option (Di Giulio et al., 2017; Greiving and Pun-tub, 2018) and propose progressive retreating strat-egies from these areas, the common counterpoint opposes this approach, arguing that it would be-tray the mission of reclamation consortia and the efforts made by previous generations to conquer these lands for farming. Thus, what may seem like, at first sight, as a technical issue turns into a cultural and political matter that requires the establishment of more articulated strategies and forward-looking visions.


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