Water, Water, All Around and Not a Drop to Drink!

Parts of Sicily have a water crisis.  When we were in Messina, our guide told us locals only had running water one hour a day.  (Not to worry if you are planning a visit – the hotels have water – tourism is too important to the economy.)  Out of the seven Aeolian islands, only Salina (slightly to the north of Lipari) has a fresh water spring.  And rain water isn’t plentiful.  It’s sort of unbelievable that these islands have supported settlements for thousands of years without a steady water supply!

Lipari has the largest population – and has had the largest population for centuries.  It used to support a lot more agriculture – the evidence is in the terraced hillsides that you can still see today – much of it adapted to take water out of the thick mists that roll over the hills.  But the Aeolian Islands also have a huge history of emigration – to all parts of the world.  Stromboli used to have around 5,000 residents at the turn of the century, but increased volcanic activity and a decline in agriculture (I believe our guide said that a pest destroying the crops – I think grapes – was the last straw) led to most of them emigrating – many to Melbourne Australia.

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You can see the old terraces behind the active terraces on the south side of Lipari island.
You can see the old terraces behind the active terraces on the south side of Lipari island.

Lipari doesn’t feel like it’s got a water shortage.  People don’t drink the tap water, but I think we’ve seen them wash the streets here – and the large hotels have pools.  There is nothing in the apartment to indicate that we need to be frugal with water (but we are just in case), and some of the plumbing in the apartment leaks (we’ve had the landlord in once to fix it – but my guess is it’s a constant problem because nothing seems to work quite right.)  Many of the tour boats offer people fresh water showers after each swim (they shower you off as you climb back onto the boat).

At the same time, we’ve noticed water supply ships making regular rounds to the various islands.  Best I can tell the ships bring water in from Naples (but possibly parts of Sicily as well) to the thirsty islands.

Water supply being brought in to Filicudi
Water supply being brought in to Filicudi

After doing a little research, I learned that there is a desalination plant on Lipari that’s been in operation since around 1998.  It produces enough water for the winter population of Lipari – some 11,000 people.  With around an estimated 200,000 tourists coming to Lipari each season – the supply can’t keep up.  They are building (or perhaps it has been completed) a larger, more energy efficient, desalination plant right now.  I think it is /will be the biggest in Italy.  Of course they need to ship in diesel fuel to run it.  Tourism is just that important to the local economy.

Since the Aeolians became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000 tourism has really increased.  I can’t help but wonder if the increase in tourism is related to the decrease in agriculture.  It was in Cinque Terre.  It is very labor intensive to grow crops on the terraces – really hard work – not too many people are willing to do that anymore, not when there are easier jobs that are more lucrative.  I should note that there are a few upscale wineries on Lipari, and efforts at agri-tourism, but small scale compared to how it must have been in the past.  And obviously the UNESCO designation came at the cost of pumice mining – another foundation of the local economy.

I love being a tourist – and it’s a little hypocritical to talk about how unsustainable tourism is for the local economies of these small places – but it seems to me that these quaint little villages that people love to visit are in danger of being loved to death.  If tourism were to disappear – would they be able to go back to normal?  What even is normal?

Footnote:  we visited the least visited island in the Aeolians – Alicudi – where donkeys are still the only way of carrying goods up the main street.  Electricity only came to this island in the 1990s.  As tourism goes, there isn’t much to do there except sit and watch the donkeys go by, as the locals (who aren’t out fishing) sit and watch the tourists watch the donkeys.  I guess there are still places where time stands still.

Alicudi has a road from the ferry dock to the power plant - maybe 500 m.  There are probably a half dozen vehicles on the island - sharing space with the donkeys.
Alicudi has a road from the ferry dock to the power plant – maybe 500 m. There are probably a half dozen vehicles on the island – sharing space with the donkeys.
This is the main street in Alicudi - donkeys do all the heavy lifting.
This is the main street in Alicudi – donkeys do all the heavy lifting.

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