Autumn has arrived with moderate falls of rain that have refilled wells and tanks and revived heat-exhausted gardens and forests. Recent fears of drought and water shortages are dissipating, and next summer seems a long way off.

How easily we are diverted from a major crisis that is already affecting our daily lives. We need water for life, yet we are squandering it to such a degree that there are now serious fears that the supplies we drink and that we use for leisure and agriculture cannot match our demand for it. We must do something, but what? This last very long and very hot summer provides some clues.

In July the citizens of Verona suffered severe water shortages. A state of emergency was declared and people were asked to use as little water as possible. Yet, on the hottest of days, huge overhead sprinklers were spurting water into the air to irrigate crops of tobacco and maize for animal feed. In Umbria and other regions it was common to see overhead sprinklers spraying precious water all summer. Irrigation systems exist that use a fraction of this amount of water, and irrigating at night is more economical and efficient. But currently most farmers pay less than 1 per 1,000 litres of water, and so have no financial incentive to change their systems.

In August forest fires spread throughout rural Italy. In one district in Umbria it took four hours to mobilise water-carrying aircraft to extinguish a fire that had, in that time, burnt out hectares of forest and was threatening the small hamlet of Cerqueto. The planes had to transport water from lakes Bolsena and Corbara rather than the closer lake Trasimeno, which irrigation and overexploitation had reduced to a puddle. The official response to this overexploitation is not to control irrigation or to ration water, but to propose a costly transfer of water from the already overused river Tiber to the lake. Spending public money seems politically preferable to challenging peoples habits and controlling water use.

Last summer saw the agriturismo industry booming in rural regions of Italy. Sun-seeking paying guests filled most of the newly-restored country villas, hamlets and farmhouses. These developments have meant an exponential increase in the number of bathrooms with showers, loos and basins, and there is also growing demand for water to fill swimming pools, and for use in busy kitchens. This in itself may not seem particularly threatening to water supplies, but much of the development is taking place in and around small country towns, where many people rely on their own wells or on water that is pumped from local rivers and underground supplies. Even during an average summer, restrictions are often placed on local usage, and the water from many wells has become undrinkable owing to seepage from nearby irrigated field crops.

Large agriturismo ventures are placing great strain on these local water resources. Obligatory rainwater storage tanks for all new ventures would help, as would assistance for local residents to install rainwater tanks for household use. A summer surcharge on the commercial use of water might induce useful economies and provide revenue to local authorities to upgrade many old and inefficient distribution systems that contribute to water wastage. Currently, the price of water for topping up swimming pools and household reservoirs is around e12 per 1,000 litres.

The privatisation of what was once free drinking water already exists. We pay private companies for the water that comes from the spring. We pay for the plastic bottle, the screw top, the production line for filling and labelling, transport to the supermarket, the shelf space, the advertising, the retailing costs. When water shortages are acute the price of bottled water rises. We buy extra quantities just in case. We pay around e500 for every 1,000 litres of bottled water we drink.

Many provincial sources of water are now being privatised either to consortiums of private entrepreneurs or to cooperatives of local authorities. However if privatisation of water follows the pattern already emerging in Australia and the United Kingdom, the price of water will rise, the supply will not improve and infrastructure maintenance may suffer.

Rainwater, our basic resource, is stored in the form of mountain snows and river flows. Global warming is diminishing these resources, and agricultural and industrial pollution is devaluing them. If we run out of water, can we import it? At one recent conference on water resources it was suggested that the huge, relatively untapped rivers of Russia and central Asia could be used to provide water for a dehydrated Europe. Do we want to become dependent on imported water, as we are on gas and oil? Or do we all install a water butt on our balconies, prevent wasteful irrigation, tax summer water, and plant dryland gardens, which have a minimum water requirement? The choice is ours.

Lynne Chatterton is a former rural policy advisor to the South Australian government. She and her husband Brian are authors of the book Sustainable Dryland Farming, Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Picture: Fountains in Rome flow constantly, but global warming and pollution are threatening water supplies.