Severe droughts 'could be the norm' in the EU by 2050, experts say

Access to the comments Comments
By Alice Tidey
A boat laying on a dry bank of river Danube after a long time of drought near the village of Cortanovci, 50 kms north-west of Belgrade, Serbia, Aug. 9, 2022.
A boat laying on a dry bank of river Danube after a long time of drought near the village of Cortanovci, 50 kms north-west of Belgrade, Serbia, Aug. 9, 2022.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic

The drought Europe is experiencing could become the norm by the middle of the century unless effective, cross-border mitigation actions are quickly implemented, MEPs were told on Monday.

Repeated and severe droughts would have significant impacts on a growing number of economic activities including agriculture, transport, energy and healthcare, the European Parliament's Committee on Environment, Public health and Food Safety (ENVI) heard from experts.  

Andrea Toreti from the European Drought Observatory told ENVI members that according to the agency's assessment, the extreme events Europe suffered through during the last summer "might become the norm" by 2050 "if effective mitigation actions are not put in place."

"These events are going to hit Europe almost every year," he added.

The drought Europe is currently experiencing is believed to be the worst it has seen in 500 years with 64% of the continent's territory now under drought conditions, although to varying degrees.

"Severe impacts have already been reported in several areas," Toreti said. 

'European approach needed'

Agriculture is among the sectors most impacted with the harvest of grain maize, soybean, sunflower and rice sharply down this year.

But the drought, which started in late 2021 due to a strong decline in rain and snow precipitation in the previous months and which was exasperated by a series of record-defying heatwaves that started as early as May in some parts of Europe, has also put significant strain on the transport and energy sectors.

Transport on key waterways including the Rhine and the Danube was perturbed over the summer due to low water levels which also impacted hydro and nuclear power generation.

Toreti stressed that "drought is a global phenomenon, is a threat and if we focus only on Europe, we basically underestimate the risk" and said that adaptation and mitigation measures must therefore be implemented at different levels, including a "European approach with enhanced cooperation".

"Droughts don't know anything about borders," he said.

But he added that "the main risk comes from concurrent events as we’ve seen this year", i.e droughts and heatwaves. 

"We have in the past underestimated the risk connected with concurrent extreme events," he told MEPs. 

His calls for an acceleration in adaptation and mitigation measures were echoed by Hans Bruyninckx, executive director of the European Environment Agency (EEA).

"We are witnessing quite a lot of cross border dimensions (such as) impact to infrastructure" and food systems, he told ENVI members.

"I think it’s clear that a European approach is needed," he added, emphasising that "many of the policy instruments are already there but are often lacking in strong implementation and strong connectivity between these policies."

Mediterranean agriculture under threat

On agriculture, he said that "it's rather clear that there are different impacts depending on the region but also the type of crop", forecasting that as droughts and heatwaves become more regular and intense, "part of the Mediterranean region will become problematic when it comes to agriculture".

Among the adaptation and mitigation measures he listed to the committee were using different breeds of crops, improving irrigation systems, rolling out precision agriculture, and restoring soil and other ecosystems.

Still, he warned, climate change represented "a food system challenge" for Europe.

Janez Lenarčič, Commissioner of Crisis Management, meanwhile said that "Europe no longer has sufficient resources to battle its wildfires" in another stark warning to ENVI members.

More than 750,000 hectares of EU forest were burnt over this wildfire season, the highest tally observed since records began in 2006.

"Europe has just witnessed one of the worst wildfire seasons in recent memory this summer," he said.

"Obviously climate change is bringing more heat and prolonged periods of drought and as a result, the wildfire risk is spreading across all Europe and the fires are becoming more frequent and more intense."

The Commission, he said, has prepared a four-point plan to prepare against this increased risk including a quick ramp-up in firefighting capacities such as planes and helicopters, the prepositioning of more firefighters in areas particularly vulnerable to wildfires at the beginning of the season and a better prevention strategy.