Wednesday, September 28

Drought in Europe: ready for a future with less water?


High temperatures, extreme heat waves and lack of precipitation. This is the description of the summer of 2022 in Spain and also in the Old Continent. “Half of the continent has drought warnings and alerts,” highlights the European Drought Observatory. Specifically, 47% of the territory is in danger of drought and 17% in serious alert.

“When there are high temperatures, the drought gets worse,” says Alberto Garrido, director of the Botín Foundation’s Water Observatory. “What we see this summer is a compound event, when two or more climate risks occur simultaneously or sequentially, in this case, hydrological drought and heat waves,” says Dominic Royé, climatologist and professor at the University of Santiago de Compostela.

The lack of rainfall in some parts of the Old Continent has left water reserves at a minimum. In southeastern England, hydrological records have not captured rain for 150 days, according to the UK Center for Ecology and Hydrology. “The late spring and early summer of 2022 have been characterized by anomalous anticyclonic conditions over most of Western and Central Europe,” reports the latest bulletin from the European Drought Observatory.

“Last July was drier than average for most of Western Europe”

Copernicus Climate Change Service

“Last July was drier than average for most of Western Europe,” the Copernicus Climate Change Service warned in early August. A lack of rainfall that extended “from the Iberian Peninsula to the Black Sea, including the United Kingdom and Ireland.”

Spain registered an average of 8.6 mm of rainfall in July, according to the State Meteorological Agency (AEMET). France, 9.7 millimeters of rain; and the United Kingdom 23.1 mm. “The lowest figure for the month since 1935 and the seventh lowest July total on record,” according to the UK Met Office. “It is something exceptional,” warns Garrido. “Although, we are going to have to get used to the periodicity of these phenomena,” he adds.

Spain began 2022 with “a meteorological drought and in some areas it has already become hydrological,” explains Garrido. This year it has rained 26% less than normal. “It is obvious that we are experiencing a period of drought, but there is supply for the big cities,” reassures Luis Babiano, manager of the Spanish Association of Public Water and Sanitation Operators (AEOPAS).

“Freshwater resources are scarce and increasingly under pressure,” warned Virginijus Sinkevičius, European Commissioner for the Environment, Fisheries and Oceans, in a statement. “We must stop wasting water and use this resource more efficiently to adapt to a changing climate and ensure the security and sustainability of our agricultural supply,” he added.

drought plans

The first water restrictions are already reaching the Spanish municipal sides, but also French, British and Italian. In Spain, the reservoirs of the Guadalquivir and Guadiana basins are at 23% and 25% respectively. While the national average is 39%.

“In Spain, we have a drought management system and good infrastructure,” explains the director of the Botín Foundation’s Water Observatory. “In the rest of Europe it is different, Germany and France do not have such regulation and this dry situation affects them more,” he points out. However, “neither Spain nor Europe are prepared to face a major drought,” counters Royé.

“Neither Spain nor Europe are prepared to face a great drought”

Dominic Roye

climatologist and professor at the University of Santiago de Compostela

In France, as of August 12, 2022, 93 departments of the 101 that make up the country are affected by a restriction beyond surveillance: “3 are on alert, 16 on maximum alert and 74 in crisis,” reports the Ministry of Gallic Ecological Transition. “The prefectures can take exceptional, gradual and temporary measures to limit or suspend non-priority uses of water for individuals and professionals,” reveals the French regulations.

In Spain, the Special Drought Plans (PES) are responsible for “enabling security of supply,” Garrido recalls. “We have had a very important lesson from the failures we experienced in the 90s,” says Babiano.

This roadmap, which was last updated in 2017, harmonizes the declaration of an exceptional situation due to extraordinary drought, as well as the administrative organization regarding drought management. “The Mediterranean coast and the two archipelagos are better prepared, surely because they have suffered the effects of large dry sequences in past decades and have taken measures to avoid shortages, at least in urban areas,” Royé points out. Although, “the situation in the peninsular interior and in the Cantabrian regions is especially delicate,” he points out.

The plans carried out by each hydrographic basin and supervised by the Ministry for Ecological Transition make it possible to objectively identify a situation of prolonged drought or scarcity. “They are applied with little arbitrariness, the managers know what they have to do because the Law enables and obliges them”, highlights the director of the Water Observatory.

less rain

The 2050 predictions of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are starting to come true nearly three decades early. “We are writing history,” says Babiano.

Scientific reports and research point to a gradual increase in temperatures and a decrease in rainfall. “I would not say that it will rain less, perhaps it will be more extreme rainfall,” adds Garrido.

An increase of 1.5 degrees will increase extreme events such as severe storms, severe heat waves or longer droughts.

With only a 1.5 degree increase in the planet’s temperature, extreme events such as strong storms, severe heat waves, longer droughts or torrential rainfall will increase.

The forecasts of the United Nations Global Compact are more extreme: “With only 2°C warming, between 800 and 3,000 million people will suffer from chronic water scarcity.” “In 10 or 15 years we will have a new hydrological scenario that is already being noticed, perhaps the current drought plans will have to be retouched,” says Garrido.

A water shortage that is not only a social problem, but also an economic one. This summer, the drought in Europe, “the worst in 500 years”, is leaving the great rivers of the Old Continent with minimum flows.

The Rhine, one of the most important community river arteries, has reduced its level below 40 centimeters in Kaub, a German town. A number that prevents boats and river cruisers from navigating the river without getting stuck in the mud. A similar situation is experienced on the French Loire or the Danube, which has already closed several stations north of Budapest.

“We are facing an exceptional situation, it will not happen every summer,” repeats Garrido. “But, it will happen more frequently in the coming years,” he says.


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