The toll of the worsening drought in Europe – POLITICO

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Climate change intensifies the growing list of crises in Europe.

With another heatwave sweeping France and the British Isles this week, the continent is facing worsening drought, with serious consequences for energy security, food prices, trade flows and biodiversity.

Two-thirds of the territory of the European Union is now covered by drought warnings. The latest European Drought Observatory map, a sea of ​​red and orange, puts 47% of EU territory at ‘warning’ and 17% at the highest ‘alert’ level .

Across the Channel, UK authorities are preparing to declare an official drought as south-east England nears 150 days with little to no rain.

The extent to which climate change is causing this drought is not yet clear.

Poor water management may be a factor. But warmer temperatures play a role, for example by increasing evaporation and changing atmospheric pressure patterns. Scientists predict that the Mediterranean and Western Europe will face increasing drought risks as the planet warms.

“It’s very difficult to say for sure how much climate change is actually exacerbating this particular event,” said Justin Sheffield, professor of hydrology at the University of Southampton. “But [on] on the actual temperature side of things, there’s probably an impact for sure.

Across Europe, a brutal summer – part of a clear warming trend – has dried up rivers and soils already weakened by an exceptionally dry winter and spring.

The ripple effects are hammering sectors already under tension.

Energy security

Heat and drought are hitting Europe’s energy systems hard, worsening an already perilous situation as the continent grapples with a gas crisis and skyrocketing electricity prices.

Low levels of rivers and lakes are starving hydropower plants: Western Europe’s hydroelectric output fell 20% in the second quarter of this year compared to average, according to Glenn Rickson, head of energy analysis European at S&P Global. In France and Spain, water reservoirs were at their lowest level in more than two decades in July, he said.

The situation is particularly serious in Italy, where the main utility Enel has had to close “many” of its sites, according to a chief civil engineer for the company, Francesco Fornari. Meanwhile, Norway could limit its electricity exports to Europe after the government – under pressure from high energy prices – decided to prioritize replenishing dried up reservoirs rather than replenishing them. electricity production.

Less water means warmer rivers, which disrupts nuclear power plant cooling systems. France’s main utility, EDF, was forced to cut nuclear output after rising river temperatures; in Switzerland, one of the country’s three nuclear power plants had to reduce its production.

Supply constraints – as well as the increasing demand for electricity when people turn on the air conditioning – add to rising energy prices. French and German electricity prices hit new records this week.

“It really is a compound energetic event,” Sheffield said of the combination of drought, heat and fallout from the Russian war in Ukraine.

Trade flows

Falling water levels on major European rivers are also a huge headache for businesses that depend on them for transportation and cooling.

The shallow depths of the Rhine, a key transportation artery linking Switzerland and Germany’s industrial heartland to the North Sea, are hampering efforts to ship components, coal and other goods.

“Low water levels are reducing the ability of barges to transport both raw materials and finished goods down the river, putting additional pressure on supply chains,” Moody’s said in a note. research assessing damage to chemical producers based along the Rhine.

Water levels at the Kaub Gauging Tower, a critical choke point of the Rhine, are considered low when they drop below 130 centimeters. Late Wednesday, the gauge measured 46 centimeters; if it falls below 40 centimeters, navigation becomes very difficult for most barges.

A disruption of the Rhine would ripple through the region’s economy at a time when Russia’s war in Ukraine and the aftermath of the pandemic are pushing Europe to the brink of recession.

Energy firm Uniper said output from two coal-fired power plants, which Germany hopes will help avert a winter energy crisis, will be affected by supply problems along the Rhine. Last week, chemical giant BASF said it could not rule out production cuts. Shipping costs are skyrocketing; in Switzerland, fuel costs have increased because the country receives much of its oil via the Rhine.


Warmer waters can also be deadly to fish. Hundreds of fish died in Austria last month as heat drained Lake Zicksee; the same is true in Spain, France and Germany.

On land too, European wildlife is in trouble. Environmental groups in France have sounded the alarm over the impact on birds, while a Bavarian conservation association this month warned of hungry hedgehogs as worms burrow deeper into trees. dry soils in search of moisture.

Falling water levels on Europe’s major rivers are also a huge headache for businesses that depend on them | Gile Michel/Sipa Press

Many species cannot adapt to the “level of extreme events we are currently experiencing”, said Sergiy Moroz, biodiversity policy officer at the European Environment Bureau.

Raging wildfires across the continent – which spread more easily in dry, hot conditions – are eradicating large tracts of forest, destroying wildlife habitats and releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide into the air.

Spanish NGO SEO Birdlife estimated that recent forest fires in Doñana National Park could affect up to 77 threatened species. In total, Spain lost an area more than twice the size of Singapore to wildfires in the first seven months of the year; France has so far recorded a loss of more than 50,000 hectares.

The impact on biodiversity from heat, drought and wildfires comes at a time when scientists warn that species decline is progressing at record speed – a development that could have devastating consequences for food webs.


The scorching temperatures are also scorching crops across the bloc, with farmers of some of the EU’s staple and signature foods reporting painful losses.

In July, the European Commission’s Joint Research Center warned of lower yields due to hot, dry weather, forecasting an 8-9% drop for corn, sunflower and soybeans.

In Germany, farmers say wheat yields will be down about 10%. In France, the world’s fourth largest wheat exporter, the Ministry of Agriculture expects yields to be 4% lower for soft wheat and 14% for durum wheat compared to last year.

Belgian farmers say crops such as potatoes and beans are being ‘scorched by the sun’, while major world corn exporters in Romania expect drought to cause production losses of up to 35% .

In Italy, drought has hit rice plantations, with farmers predicting a 30% loss. Olive oil producers are also affected in many parts of southern Europe, and the continent’s prized wine industry is facing problems: sunburnt grapes in Spain and France will produce a below normal.

Livestock farmers in France also say pastures crucial to feeding their herds are drying up, putting pressure on the production of milk, butter and cream, according to the CNIEL. In eastern Hungary, honey production suffered.

The blow to European agriculture comes as global food security comes under strain and prices soar.

Spain’s Agriculture Minister Luis Planas, for example, said he expects vegetable oil prices – already on the rise due to the war in Ukraine affecting sunflower cultivation – to remain raised if his country’s olive harvest suffers.

Matthew Horwood/Getty Images


The combined effects on transport, energy and agriculture are driving up electricity bills and commodity prices, adding to Europe’s inflation problems and threatening to stoke popular discontent just as multiple elections are looming in the fall.

This summer has already seen a wave of labor strikes over soaring costs.

In Spain, farmers’ organization ASAJA has announced plans for protests next month, saying higher production costs combined with lower production due to drought are creating an unsustainable situation for farmers.

In France, a survey this week found that almost 80% were worried about heat and drought, and 70% – including more than half of President Emmanuel Macron’s supporters – said the government did not care. was not doing enough to fight climate change.

The government has described this drought as the worst the country has ever experienced. The Loire has been reduced to a stream in places, and some 93 regions of the country are facing water restrictions, while more than 100 towns have no access to drinking water.

Rain in the coming weeks could bring some relief, but after several dry months – and in some areas, years – the drought in Europe is deep.

“I think we’re at least a few more weeks away from this type of weather,” said Sheffield, the hydrologist. “Maybe it will get a bit better, but we need a lot of rain to recover. [from] this drought.

Joshua Posaner, Leonie Cater, Victor Jack and Gabriela Galindo contributed reporting.

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