Drought across Europe is drying up rivers, killing fish and shrivelling crops
LUX, France — A river once ran through it. Today, white dust and thousands of dead fish blanket the wide trench that winds its way through rows of trees in France’s Burgundy region in what used to be the River Tille in the village of Lux.
From dry and cracked reservoirs in Spain to falling water levels on major arteries like the Danube, Rhine and Po, an unprecedented drought is affecting almost half of the European continent. It harms agricultural economies, imposes water restrictions, causes forest fires and threatens aquatic species.
There has been no significant rainfall for almost two months in western, central and southern Europe. And the dry spell is expected to continue in what experts say is the worst drought in 500 years.
Climate change worsen conditions as warmer temperatures accelerate evaporation, parched plants absorb more moisture, and reduced snowfall in winter limits the supply of fresh water available for irrigation in summer. Europe is not alone in the crisis, with drought conditions also reported in East Africa, the western United States and northern Mexico.
As he strolled through the 15-metre-wide (50-foot-wide) river bed in Lux, Jean-Philippe Couasné, chief technician at the local Federation of Fisheries and Aquatic Environment Protection, listed the species of fish that had died in the Tille.
“It’s heartbreaking,” he said. “On average, about 8,000 liters (about 2,100 gallons) per second flow. … And now zero liters.”
In some upstream areas, some trout and other freshwater species may shelter in pools via fish ladders. But such systems are not available everywhere.
Without rain, the river “will continue to empty. And yes, all the fish will die. … They are trapped upstream and downstream, there is no water coming in, so the oxygen level will continue to decrease as the volume (of water) goes down,” Couasné said. “These are species that will gradually disappear.”
Jean-Pierre Sonvico, the federation’s regional chief, said diverting fish to other rivers will not help as those streams are also affected, leading to overcrowding and more deaths.
“Yes, it’s dramatic because what can we do? Nothing,” he said. “We are waiting, hoping for thunderstorms with rain, but the thunderstorms are very local, so we can’t count on it.”
The European Commission’s Joint Research Center warned this week that drought conditions will worsen and potentially affect 47% of the continent.
Andrea Toreti, lead researcher at the European Drought Observatory, said a drought in 2018 was so extreme that there have been no similar events in the past 500 years, “but this year, I think it’s really worse.”
For the next three months, “we still see a very high risk of dry conditions in Western and Central Europe, as well as the UK,” Toreti said.
The current situation is the result of long periods of dry weather caused by changes in global weather systems, said meteorologist Peter Hoffmann of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research near Berlin.
“It’s just that in the summer we feel it the most,” he said. “But in fact, the drought accumulates throughout the year.”
Climate change has dampened temperature differences between regions, undermining the forces that drive the jet stream, which normally brings wet Atlantic weather to Europe, he said.
A weaker or unstable jet stream can bring unusually warm air into Europe from North Africa, leading to long periods of heat. The reverse is also true, when a polar vortex of cold Arctic air can cause freezing conditions far south of where it would normally reach.
Hoffmann said observations in recent years were all at the high end of what existing climate models predicted.
Drought has prompted some European countries to impose restrictions on water use, and navigation is threatened on the Rhine and Danube.
The Rhine could reach critical lows in the coming days, making it increasingly difficult to transport goods – including coal and gasoline. On the Danube, the Serbian authorities have started dredging sand to deepen the waterway and ensure the smooth flow of ships.
In neighboring Hungary, large parts of popular Lake Velence, near Budapest, have turned into patches of dried mud, beaching small boats. Aeration and water circulation equipment was installed to protect wildlife, but water quality deteriorated to the point that a swimming ban was imposed on a weekend beach.
Stretches of the Po, Italy’s longest river, are so low that barges and boats that sank decades ago are resurfacing.
The drought also affected southern England, which received just 10% of its average rainfall in July. Firefighters are battling an unprecedented number of grass fires and residents in several areas have been banned from watering their lawns.
The charity Rivers Trust said England’s chalk streams – which allow underground springs to bubble through the spongy layer of rock – are drying up, endangering aquatic wildlife such as kingfishers and the trout.
Even in countries like Spain and Portugal, which are used to long periods without rain, the consequences are major. In the Spanish region of Andalusia, some avocado growers had to sacrifice hundreds of trees to save others from wilting as the Vinuela reservoir in the province of Malaga fell to just 13% of its capacity, down 55% from a year ago.
Some European farmers use tap water for their livestock in areas where ponds and streams have dried up, using up to 100 liters (26 gallons) per day per cow.
In normally green Burgundy, home to the source of the Seine in Paris, the grass has turned yellow-brown and tractors are kicking up giant clouds of dust.
Baptiste Colson, who owns dairy cows and grows fodder crops in the village of Moloy, said his animals were suffering from the drought, with the quality and quantity of milk declining.
The 31-year-old head of the local Young Farmers’ Union said he was forced to dip into his winter supply of fodder in August.
“That’s the biggest concern,” Colson said.
EU maize production is expected to be 12.5 million tonnes lower than last year and sunflower production is expected to be 1.6 million tonnes lower, according to a report by S&P Global Commodity Insights.
Colson expects a drop of at least 30% in corn yield, a major problem for feeding his cows.
“We know we will have to buy feed…so the cows can continue to produce milk,” he said. “From an economic point of view, the cost will be high.”
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