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As Drought Parches Italy, Rome Turns Off Historic Drinking Fountains


Water plays a central role in the grandeur of Rome. Think of the aqueducts and the Trevi Fountain.


Think, too, of smaller drinking fountains, nearly 3,000 of them, that cater to thirsty Romans and tourists alike. But drastic temperatures call for drastic measures. And Italy is gripped by drought and roughly a billion euros worth of agricultural damage.

MARTIN: In order to save water, Rome is turning its drinking fountains off for the first time in its history. Christopher Livesay has the story from Rome.


CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY, BYLINE: Romans called these fountains nasoni, which literally means big noses, after the curved, cast-iron spigots gushing fresh drinking water 24 hours a day. There's a trick to getting a good sip. If I stick my finger inside the spigot, the water shoots out of the little hole at the top and creates this arc of water, kind of like a drinking fountain. But starting this week, Romans will have to quench their thirst elsewhere. The water utility says a severe drought has forced it to start closing the tap on the city's 2,800 public drinking fountains at the rate of 30 per day.

That's bad news for Pippo Nicosia.


LIVESAY: He runs a flower stand in the central Campo de' Fiori market and uses the water from the nasoni for his plants.

PIPPO NICOSIA: (Through interpreter) Turning off these fountains would be trouble. I've never heard of such a thing in the 29 years I've been working here. It's one thing for tourists. But here in the markets, we depend on it.

LIVESAY: He's not alone. The Italian Red Cross blasted the move for disregarding the city's thousands of homeless, which include a growing number of migrants. Consumer groups warn it will lead to price gouging on bottled water and increase litter. Keeping the water flowing is also fundamental to preventing costly blockages in the pipes. That's something the ancient Romans were keenly aware of, says Dr. Lauren Golden. She's an art historian at the American University of Rome.

LAUREN GOLDEN: Another purpose to this free-flowing water is cleaning the drains of the city. It keeps everything clean, and then it eventually flushes out into the river Tiber. There were 11 ancient Roman aqueducts bringing millions of gallons of free-flowing water into the city a day. And this is still the same today, but now there are 13.

LIVESAY: But while the city may be eternal, its pipes and fountains are not. The water utility says it's taking advantage of the closure to repair widespread leaks. That means the fountains may be off the entire summer, which means at least Rome's bars and water-bottle vendors may have a very good summer, indeed. For NPR News, I'm Christopher Livesay, in Rome.

(SOUNDBITE OF EDAMAME'S "RAINSTICKS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christopher Livesay