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Drought and heatwaves: How is Europe tackling unprecedented water shortages?

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By Richard Good  & Alasdair Sandford & Joshua Askew
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The fountains of Concorde plaza are empty in Paris, France, as Europe is under an extreme heat wave, Aug. 3, 2022.
The fountains of Concorde plaza are empty in Paris, France, as Europe is under an extreme heat wave, Aug. 3, 2022.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Francois Mori, File

Soaring temperatures and a conspicuous lack of rainfall have left many European countries grappling with historic droughts this summer. 

This is having wide-reaching effects across the region, significantly impacting agriculture, energy production and water supplies. 

But how is each European country being affected and what are local authorities doing to combat the problems caused by these extreme temperatures? 

France

The French government has set up a crisis team to tackle a historic drought that has left more than 100 municipalities short of drinking water

Trucks are taking water to those areas as "there is nothing left in the pipes", said Christophe Béchu, the country's minister for ecological transition. 

"This is a situation like nothing we've ever seen... And the bad news is that, as far as we can see, there's no reason to think that it will stop."

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has warned that France is facing the "most severe drought" ever recorded in the country. 

The heatwave that has baked the country since June has prompted trees and bushes to shed their leaves early, creating scenes that look autumnal.

After a brief cooling-off in some regions, the French national meteorological service Météo-France is forecasting further increases in temperatures this week and still drier soil despite recent storms.

Temperatures well above 30°C and rising to as high as 37°C in parts of the south are forecast from Monday and over the next few days.

"Maximum temperatures between 32°C and 36°C could very probably remain for a long time over a large part of the country," said Météo-France.

Italy

In Rome, residents and tourists have cooled off at the many water fountains dotted across the city. 

Popular tourist destinations in Italy such as Florence and Palermo are among 16 Italian cities on the "red alert" list, with temperatures topping 40°C.

Several municipalities have already announced water rationing, including the popular cities of Verona and Pisa. 

Rice production in the river Po Valley is under severe threat as drought and hot weather continue to cause paddy fields to completely dry up and become salty from use of aquifers.

Farmers say harvests of the rice used for risotto could be damaged for years by the increased salt content in the earth, which is killing off plants.

Part of a €17 billion package of government measures to tackle the cost-of-living crisis in Italy is also aimed at mitigating the effects of the drought, the worst in 70 years in the country.

Last month Italy's agriculture minister warned parliament that a third of Italy's agricultural production was at risk because of drought and poor water infrastructure and that the situation is only going to get worse in years to come.

FLAVIO LO SCALZO/REUTERS
A WWII bomb was found in the River Po after water levels fell to a record low.FLAVIO LO SCALZO/REUTERS

The Netherlands

Dutch minister of infrastructure and water management Mark Harbers has called on people to shower quicker and not to wash their cars or water the garden.

Houseboat owners in Arnhem say the difference between the summer and winter water levels is so great that the boats are lying at an angle.

The Netherlands on Wednesday declared an official water shortage, having already imposed limits on agriculture and shipping. 

The government warned that the drought is expected to "continue for some time" and further measures to conserve water during the drought were being considered — while assuring that sufficient drinking water remains available.

The country is protected from water by a famous system of dams, dikes and canals, but with about a third of its land area below sea level, it remains particularly vulnerable to climate change.

Some regions of the Netherlands, the world's second-largest agricultural exporter after the United States, have already banned farmers from watering their crops with surface water. Some canal locks for navigation have been closed.

Priority would now be given to the safety of the Dutch dyke system, followed by drinking water and energy supplies, according to the government.

AP Photo
Municipal workers spray water on bridges over Amsterdam's canals to prevent metal in the constructions expanding, which can jam them shut blocking boat trafficAP Photo

Germany

Levels on the Rhine in Germany, one of Europe's key waterways, have also plummeted in the hot weather. 

Last week, authorities warned that the river was just days away from being closed to commercial traffic because of abnormally low levels of water caused by drought. 

Already shipping costs have risen because vessels cannot sail on the Rhine fully loaded, vessel brokers said on Friday.

Freight ships on the river have been forced to sail 75% empty. 

"Customers would often need three vessels to transport their cargo instead of one," said Roberto Spranzi, director of the DTG shipping cooperative.

Shipping capacity is already tight because of increased demand after Germany’s move to increase coal-fired electricity generation as it braces for reduced gas supplies from Russia, Spranzi added.

Low water levels on the Rhine will also hit output from two German coal-fired power stations in the coming months, since they interrupt coal delivery supplies along the river. 

Credit: AP
The earth on the banks of the Rhine has burst open due to the heat, near Duesseldorf, Germany, Wednesday, July 13, 2022Credit: AP

Romania

In Romania, water levels on the Danube have dropped so much that sand islands surfaced in the Calafat region. 

The amount of water in the Danube, which has inspired poets and musicians for centuries, is now close to an all-time low.

The government plans to increase investment in irrigation projects to limit crop damage in the future.

On Wednesday the European Commission called on member states to re-use treated urban wastewater for agricultural irrigation.

Other parts of Europe have also witnessed torrid conditions in the early summer.

The harsh drought in some parts of the country is expected to diminish Romania's cereals crop by 30 million tonnes. 

About 75% of Romania's land surface is affected by various phases of drought. 

In Vrancea County, the hardest-hit region, crops on 70% of the agricultural area are entirely damaged, according to Romania Insider. 

Credit: AP Photo
A woman cools off in a city fountain in Bucharest, Romania, Wednesday, July 20, 2022Credit: AP Photo

Portugal

Portugal last month recorded its hottest July since records began in 1931, the country’s weather service IPMA said on Friday.

The heat worsened Portugal's environmental troubles, with 99% of the country in severe or extreme drought. 

45% of the Portuguese mainland was in “extreme drought” — the highest classification — and the rest in “severe” drought, the second-highest, at the end of July.

The average temperature was 25.14°C, the IPMA said, almost three degrees Celsius higher than the expected July average. 

National rainfall measured 3 millimetres, around 22% of the normal amount.

In July, Portugal announced it would cut irrigation of golf courses and green spaces in its tourism-dependent Algarve region to avert water rationing for human consumption. 

Environment Minister Duarte Cordeiro said the restrictive measure in the Algarve had been freely agreed by the government and Algarve's AHETA hotels association, and would save 100 million litres of water in the coming summer months.

In Portugal, where more than 10 million people live, the daily consumption of water is 18 litres per capita.

RODRIGO ANTUNES/REUTERS
View of a previously submerged village revealed by low water level in Cabril dam reservoir in Pedrogao Grande, Portugal, July 13, 2022RODRIGO ANTUNES/REUTERS

Additional sources • AFP, AP, Reuters