It’s only spring and Europe is drying up. A key savings bank serving millions of Catalans is shrinking. A conflict over water has sparked a conflict in France, where many villages can no longer provide drinking water to their inhabitants. And the flow of Italy’s largest river has already fallen to the lowest it was last June.
More than a quarter of the continent has been experiencing drought since April, and many countries are bracing for a repeat – or worse – of last summer.
As Politico writes, citing a study using satellite data, Europe has been suffering from a severe drought since 2018. Rising temperatures are making the situation more difficult, leaving the continent stuck in a dangerous cycle where water becomes increasingly precarious.
“A few years ago I would have said that we have enough water in Europe,” said Torsten Mayer-Gürr, lead author of the study. “Now it looks like we might be in trouble.”
A rain will save us
While the rains expected in the coming weeks could cool soils and help agriculture, they are not enough to cover groundwater shortages
As summer approaches, governments are now scrambling to cope with current and future shortages, while managing stresses arising from growing competition for water.
The drought, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said last week, “will be one of the main political and territorial debates in our country in the years to come”.
Last year’s historic drought depleted Europe’s surface and underground reservoirs.
Winter was supposed to bring relief. But many of the hardest hit parts of the continent have seen little rain or snow.
France, where no rain fell for more than 30 consecutive days in January and February, experienced its driest winter in 60 years.
Italian research institute CIMA found a 64% reduction in snowfall by mid-April. The level of the Po is already as low as last summer. Lake Garda is less than half its average level.
The Sau reservoir north of Barcelona has sunk so low that authorities have decided to remove the fish so they don’t die and pollute the water in the area. Generally
In Catalonia, the deductions amount to only 27%. And next week, Spain faces an early heat wave.
Winter rainfall is crucial for Mediterranean countries in particular, said Fred Hattermann, a hydrologist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.
For Europe to break out of the vicious circle of starting each year with a large groundwater deficit, “we would need almost a decade of heavy rainfall,” Hatterman warned.
The role of climate change
As Politico points out, predicting rainfall over such long periods of time is difficult, especially with climate change altering rainfall patterns.
But even if precipitation levels remain the same, climate change will reduce water availability in all parts of Europe.
Drought is a complex phenomenon and many factors, such as mismanagement or overuse of water, can play a role. However, rising temperatures will certainly put additional pressure on Europe’s water supply.
Europe is slowly becoming aware of the threat.
Earlier this month, Italy issued a drought decree that reduces red tape for water infrastructure, including desalination plants. Spain released a new set of water management plans in January.
French President Emmanuel Macron’s new national water management strategy aims to reduce total water consumption by 10% by the end of the decade. As part of this plan, each sector will be invited to make proposals to reduce water use.
The German strategy, approved in March, includes measures to make water use “sustainable” in 10 sectors by 2050, as well as a 78-meter plan to be implemented by 2030.
But critics say countries are doing too little to tackle poor resource management, which continues to abound across the continent, exacerbating the effects of dwindling water availability. According to the industry, it is estimated that a quarter of drinking water in Europe is lost due to leaking pipes.
Meanwhile, managing water – and deciding who has access to it – is becoming a political issue across the continent.
Last summer, restrictions on water use were imposed in the UK, France, Spain and Italy, raising questions about the prioritization of water use for tourism infrastructure , large industrial plants and agriculture.
Some municipalities are already facing new restrictions — in others they have never been lifted. Catalonia recently imposed limits, including a mandatory 40% reduction in water use for agriculture.
In southern Germany, water disputes have doubled over the past two decades. And in France, tensions between environmentalists and farmers over the construction of water reservoirs last month sparked violent clashes.