Europe’s Water Crisis Worsens as Winter Drought Takes Hold

As winter takes hold, parts of Europe are experiencing the worst drought conditions in living memory. Lakes and rivers are running dry, water levels are dropping rapidly, and there are growing concerns about water shortages for homes, farmers, and factories across the continent. According to a report by the Graz University of Technology in Austria, Europe has been in drought since 1918, and its water situation is now “very precarious.” The report’s findings are corroborated by a map of current droughts in Europe from the EU’s Copernicus program, which shows alerts for low rainfall or soil moisture in areas of northern and southern Spain, northern Italy, and southern Germany, with almost all of France, affected.

The crisis has been driven by climate change, with the World Weather Attribution service saying that last year’s northern hemisphere drought was at least 20 times more likely due to human-caused climate change. Andrea Toreti, a senior scientist at the European Drought Observatory, warns of the unusual recurrence of droughts in Europe, saying “Clearly, in some parts of Europe, the lack of precipitation and the current deficit is such that it won’t be easy for water levels to recover before the start of the summer.” Experts say the coming months will be crucial.

France is among the countries worst affected by the crisis. In recent days, France recorded 32 days without significant rainfall, the longest period since records began in 1959, and the state forecaster, Météo-France, has said that little or no precipitation is expected until at least the end of the month. Last summer’s drought was caused by anthropogenic climate change, according to France’s CNRS scientific research center, and this winter’s drought shows “the same characteristics.” Local authorities in all seven of the country’s major river basins have been ordered to start enforcing water restrictions as the government works on a crisis plan to tackle the problem.

Christophe Béchu, the minister for ecological transition, warns that France would have to cope with up to 40% less water in coming years, adding that the country was already on a “state of alert” and restrictions in some areas were fully justified. French President Emmanuel Macron called this week for a “sobriety plan” to save water and warned that the “time of abundance” had come to an end. Among the government’s plans are modernizing agricultural irrigation, which represents up to 80% of consumption in summer, boosting wastewater recycling, and reducing loss due to leakage.

People in four southern départements have been barred from filling swimming pools or washing their cars, while farmers must cut their water consumption by up to half.

In Spain, the situation is just as serious. Water supplies across the country have been low since January 2022, but in Catalonia, they have fallen so low that authorities this week introduced laws, including a 40% reduction in water used for agriculture, a 15% reduction for industrial uses, and a cut in the average daily supply per inhabitant from 250 liters to 230 liters. According to Rubén del Campo, a spokesperson for the state meteorological agency Aemet, the situation shows no sign of improvement over the coming months.

Europe faces growing water crisis
Lac de Montbel, a major reservoir and boating lake in the French Pyrenees, is more than 80% empty due to exceptionally low winter rain and snow fall. Photograph: Valentine Chapuis/Getty Images

The worst-affected areas are the northern third of the country and parts of Andalucía and the south of Castilla-La Mancha. Del Campo warns that while droughts have always been a natural phenomenon in Spain, a change has been seen over recent decades. “We’ve noticed the droughts in the south of Spain are lasting longer, and that when the rains come, they’re shorter but more intense.

In addition to the aforementioned countries, Portugal is also experiencing a severe water crisis. The country is currently facing its worst drought in decades, with more than 80% of the territory in a state of severe drought, according to the Portuguese Institute of the Sea and the Atmosphere. The government has already declared a state of alert in several regions and has implemented restrictions on water use.

The water crisis in Europe is not just a problem for people, but also for wildlife. The lack of water is causing rivers, lakes, and wetlands to dry up, which is having a devastating impact on ecosystems. Fish and other aquatic species are dying, and migratory birds are having difficulty finding suitable habitats.

The crisis is also impacting agriculture. Farmers are facing significant challenges as crops fail due to a lack of water. In Spain, for example, the drought has already caused losses of more than €1bn ($1.2bn) in the agricultural sector, according to the Spanish Farmers’ Union.

The water crisis is a clear sign that climate change is having a profound impact on our planet. As the world continues to warm, extreme weather events such as droughts, floods, and heat waves are becoming more frequent and severe. The situation in Europe is a wake-up call for governments around the world to take urgent action to address the climate crisis.

To address the water crisis, governments and communities must work together to implement sustainable water management practices. This includes reducing water consumption, increasing water efficiency, and improving water infrastructure. It also means protecting and restoring ecosystems that are essential for water conservation.

Individuals can also play a role in addressing the water crisis. Simple actions such as fixing leaks, reducing shower times, and using water-efficient appliances can all help to reduce water consumption. By making small changes in our daily lives, we can all contribute to a more sustainable future.

In conclusion, the water crisis in Europe is a clear sign that we must take urgent action to address the climate crisis. Governments, communities, and individuals must work together to implement sustainable water management practices and protect our precious water resources. Failure to act now will only make the situation worse, with devastating consequences for people, wildlife, and the environment.


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