Populations must adapt as Europe faces drier future
Visitors from the drier zones of the Middle East this summer may be shocked, as half of the EU is threatened by drought. Satellite images reveal desert-like vistas across huge swathes of Europe. Even the usually green and pleasant land of England is straw brown, not verdant green. One hundred villages across France have been without safe tap water. And all of this is predicted to get worse.
The climate change deniers are out in force. Some are just immune to facts and reason. One prominent British denier even tried to argue that the gloomy beige satellite pictures of a scorched nation were just due to harvested wheat fields. Such views must be ignored in favor of a scientific and strategic approach.
Experts have determined that climate change has made such extreme temperatures 10 times more likely. The reality is that droughts will become more frequent.
British temperatures have once again been surpassing those of islands in the Caribbean, having already shattered the country’s temperature record last month and with many areas experiencing the driest July in recorded history.
The UK is not used to the wildfires that are prevalent in California or in Southern Europe. It is typically never this dry. One county, Gloucestershire, had two farmland fires in all of last year, but this summer it has already been hit by 34. Fires are raging across Spain, Portugal, Greece, Croatia and elsewhere. Remember too that even Nordic countries have suffered from wildfires in recent years.
France has its own inferno in the southwest as it endures its worst drought in recorded history. This has forced it to plead for assistance, with firefighters sent from Germany, Romania, Poland and Austria.
The drought has neutered the flow of Europe’s greatest rivers, including the Rhine, the Loire, the Po, the Thames and the Danube. The Loire can be crossed on foot in certain areas. This is another long-term trend. Glaciers in the Alps are providing much less water to rivers, for example.
The temperature of river water has also risen too high in certain areas to be used for cooling in power plants. The Loire alone helps cool 12 nuclear power stations. These increased temperatures may also threaten fish stocks, as oxygen levels decline in warmer water. Less water also means a higher concentration of pollutants.
Experts have determined that climate change has made extreme temperatures 10 times more likely.
The Rhine is so low it is disrupting shipping, with a repeat of the last major drought in 2018 that closed down freight shipping now nearly certain. Cargo vessels have had to carry lighter loads, further increasing transportation costs. As a result of the war on Ukraine and the ensuing ban on Russian gas, large amounts of coal are now shipped along the Rhine, further stressing the system.
Italy’s longest river, the Po, which runs from Turin to Venice, is now freely available for a gentle evening stroll, as the riverbed has started appearing. This has revealed certain treasures, including Second World War remnants such as a German tank. In Rome, a bridge from the age of Emperor Nero has emerged from the declining Tiber waters.
This is Italy’s worst drought in decades. The Po valley is the center of Italy’s rice production, which could be hit by as much as 60 percent.
Reservoirs in southern Spain are running dry, as are groundwater resources. Greenpeace estimates that 74 percent of the country could be liable to desertification.
The short-term damage is alarming. Harvests will be smaller and farmers have complained of stunted crops, meaning they may no longer meet supermarket size specifications. Remember that the agricultural sector is already reeling from the higher costs of inputs and energy. In the UK, Brexit exacerbated this situation, leading to a rise in costs of about 23.5 percent over the last 12 months. Farmers are compelled to use winter feedstocks for their animals now.
The impacts of such droughts in the longer run are acute. They hit agricultural areas, cause soil erosion and destroy habitats, thereby causing a loss of biodiversity.
The planet is doing its best to collectively message the world prior to the COP27 climate change conference in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, in November. The question is whether the key politicians are tuning in. Are they planning ahead or largely reacting to one crisis after another?
Are European and other countries properly prepared for these increasing droughts, let alone intensified heat waves? Droughts are one of the costliest environmental disasters. They may not be as dramatic as hurricanes, for example, but they have an attritional, long-term impact that perhaps does not get the attention it deserves. Urban dwellers tend to be unaware of the risk of drought as long as their taps continue to flow.
This requires national and regional water strategies that factor in the probable impact of climate change. Water management authorities and companies must look at solutions on both the supply and demand sides. Too much water is still lost to leakage — as much as 42 percent in Italy. Investment is needed to enhance winter water storage, as well as to build flood defenses.
Options must include looking at long-term changes in land use. And how can more precision irrigation techniques be rolled out to reduce water use in agriculture and also domestic gardens? The EU has urged states to reuse treated urban wastewater for agricultural irrigation, but how many are able to do this is not clear. Are the early warning systems fully in place and do restrictions on water use come in early enough? Improved monitoring systems are being developed, not least in the drier Southern Europe, but perhaps they need to be rolled out elsewhere. Public education programs on water use also have to be utilized.
The populations in what used to be relatively water-rich areas of the world have to adapt and learn new behaviors that treat water as the vital commodity it is. Getting people and businesses to alter their habits may be one of the toughest challenges facing humanity, but what choice is there?
- Chris Doyle is director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, in London. Twitter: @Doylech