Europe battles water shortages as severe drought sweeps the continent

In Obwalden, high in the Swiss Alps, the army has been enlisted to save the cows.

With mountain streams drying up in the Alpine country, military helicopters were dispatched last week to transport huge containers of water to pastures from the lakes below, to prevent herds from dying of thirst.

“In Switzerland, we are not used to the idea of ​​drought,” said Sonia Seneviratne, professor of earth-climate dynamics at research university ETH Zurich. “We think of ourselves as this watery fortress of Europe, but as glaciers shrink and summer temperatures become more extreme, that’s less and less of a reality.”

The water shortages are part of a severe drought that is sweeping the continent from Portugal to Eastern Europe and from southern England to Italy. Scientists blame the combination of an unusually dry winter followed by an equally dry spring and scorching hot summer as part of a warming trend driven by climate change.

The Vue des Alpes pass hit by drought above La Chaux-de-Fonds, in French-speaking Switzerland © Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

Drought and extremely high temperatures across Europe – France has been gripped by a third summer heat wave – are affecting households, industry, transport and tourism, as well as agriculture and l ‘agriculture. The dry, tinder-like ground also provides ideal conditions for the wildfires that have ravaged France, Portugal and others.

French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne on Friday activated a special crisis unit to deal with what she called the worst drought in the country’s history. Of the 96 departments in European France, all but three have implemented water restrictions and about two-thirds are classified as “crisis”, according to the Ministry of the Environment.

In the western Loire Valley, cattle farmer Clément Traineau said it was the worst he or his 65-year-old father had ever experienced. The grass in his pastures had long since dried out from the heat and months with very little rain, and the maize that would be used to feed his cows later in the year had shrunk in a hot wind. which looks “like a hair dryer”.

“It’s not just the surface, the ground is dry deep down,” he explained. “Trees in forests lose their leaves, it’s not pretty. It’s worse than 1976, which was the year everyone was referring to.

An animated map of the Combined Drought Indicator for Europe for the months of July 2012 to 2022. It shows that 2022 has the most widespread soil moisture deficits for a decade

Scientists believe summer droughts could become the norm in Western Europe – four of the last five summers have been extremely dry – due to the effects of climate change.

“An extreme heat weather event that would have happened once every 10 years without human-induced climate change is now happening three times every 10 years,” Seneviratne explained. “It’s possible that within a decade, every other summer will be like this, and it will get worse if we don’t stop carbon emissions.”

The European Drought Observatory of the EU last evaluation shows a map speckled with red and orange to indicate that 13% of the bloc’s territory was in severe “alert” conditions until July 10, and 45% in “warning” territory – and drought has since worsened.

Météo France, France’s meteorological office, said the country’s surface soil moisture was the lowest on record. July’s rainfall, at 9.7 mm, was 85% below the seasonal norm and the second driest month on record, after March 1961. Western France was particularly hot, with temperatures in the city ​​of Biscarrosse reaching 42.6°C last month, a local record.

“If there are no significant rains before the end of September, things are likely to become very difficult,” said Christian Huyghe, scientific director of agriculture at the National Institute for Agricultural Research.

A farmer stands in a cornfield
A farmer assesses the damage caused to his maize field by a severe drought in Spino d’Adda, Italy © Piero Cruciatti/AFP/Getty Images

The Netherlands declared a national water shortage this week as Polish authorities introduced restrictions on rivers, including the country’s longest Vistula, where water levels have fallen to record lows. . In Warsaw, Vistula ferry services were suspended for a week last month due to low water levels.

If water levels on the Rhine drop another 7 cm, long stretches of one of Europe’s most important industrial highways will become unnavigable for freight traffic. Water levels in Lake Constance, Western Europe’s second-largest freshwater body by volume, have only been as low twice before in recorded history – in 1949 and in 1876.

Some French nuclear power plants have had to reduce production due to environmental rules limiting the temperature of wastewater used for cooling that is returned to rivers. Droughts have also reduced hydropower generation in Europe, including in the Alps.

Brussels estimated last year that drought-related damage would cost the EU around €9 billion a year, rising to €40 billion a year if global warming were to reach 3°C. Temperatures have already risen by at least 1.1°C since pre-industrial times, scientists say.

The wreckage of the ship can be seen protruding from a riverbed
The wreck of the ship Elisabeth, which sank in 1895, became visible due to the low water level of the Rhine near the German-Dutch border © Vincent Jannink/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Some Europeans looked to the skies for help. In Cagnano, a hilltop village on the border between Umbria and Tuscany in Italy, locals gathered last month to invoke Saint Vincent Ferrer, patron saint of winemakers, to bring much-needed rain.

“During these difficult days of drought, her intercession with God is crucial,” said priest Giorgio Mariotti in a message to the local community.

In the north of France, Denis Bollengier felt the dust on his fingers while picking potatoes on the dry earth of his farm in the village of Esquelbecq. “Normally when I do this my hands get muddy,” he said, adding that his annual harvest could be cut in half this year.

“We are heading for disaster,” he said.

Victor Mallet in Paris, Sam Jones in Zurich, Akila Quinio in Esquelbecq, Raphael Minder in Warsaw, Silvia Sciorilli Borrelli in Milan and Alice Hancock in Brussels

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