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‘Very precarious’: The European countries facing another year of drought

A sunken sail boat is pictured above the water line at the lake Serre-Poncon in southern France.
A sunken sail boat is pictured above the water line at the lake Serre-Poncon in southern France. Copyright AP Photo/Daniel Cole
Copyright AP Photo/Daniel Cole
By Rosie Frost
Published on Updated
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An unusually hot, dry winter has failed to replenish already low water levels after last year’s devastating drought.

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A major UN report recently warned that water supplies around the world are at increasing risk from “vampiric overconsumption”.

Europe has been in drought since 2018, according to a recent study from the Graz University of Technology in Austria. Researchers say the water situation is now “very precarious”.

Countries across the continent have been struggling with water even through winter. Low rain and snowfall mean already dwindling supplies haven’t been restored during this typically wet period.

In northern Italy, France and Spain, the situation “raises concerns for water supply for human use, agriculture and energy production”, according to the EU Joint Research Centre’s (JRC) latest report on droughts in Europe.

And, it says, Europe and the Mediterranean region could experience another extreme summer this year. The European Commission says that it could be an even drier summer than in previous years with the precipitation in the coming weeks crucial to determining what happens.

France experiences a month without rain

On 20 February this year, France broke a record by going 32 consecutive days without rain. The country experienced its driest winter in more than 60 years.

Snowfall in the French Alps, Pyrenees and other mountain ranges was also much lower than usual this year. This precipitation is vital for filling rivers and reservoirs, prompting concerns for supplies through the rest of the year.

Almost all French departments were affected by water restrictions in 2022 and 700 municipalities had difficulties with drinking water supplies.

Several authorities have already introduced restrictions this year. Drôme and Ardèche have been put on an early drought warning. They are encouraging residents to curb their water use.

AP Photo/Daniel Cole
The usually partially submerged Chanteloube railway viaduct is pictured above the water line at the lake Serre-Poncon in southern France.AP Photo/Daniel Cole

The Pyrénées-Orientales, Ain, Bouches-du-Rhône, and Var are also on alert with people living in these areas forbidden from watering their lawns, filling swimming pools or watering crops.

French Environment Minister Christophe Béchu announced earlier this year that the government was working on an “anti-drought” plan in the face of the crisis. He said that the average water consumption of 150 litres per person a day wasn’t sustainable and called on all industries to cut their usage.

One solution that France is looking at is recycling more wastewater. Just 77 of the total 33,000 treatment plants in the country are currently equipped with a recycling treatment system. Any plan to cut consumption needs to include ramping up the reprocessing of wastewater, Béchu said.

He also warned that the country’s 100 departmental prefects shouldn’t hesitate to bring in local water restrictions this year given the current situation.

Spain faces ‘long-term drought’

In northeastern Spain, drought has reached “extraordinary” proportions, according to the country’s weather service Aemet. The dire situation has been caused by high temperatures and low rainfall over the last three years.

Drinking water supplies for the six million people who live in Barcelona’s metropolitan area are now at risk. The Sau reservoir is at around 9 per cent of its total capacity and officials have made the decision to remove fish to stop them from suffocating.

AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti
The Sau reservoir's water levels now stand at 9% of total capacity, according to Catalan Water Agency data.AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti

Water has been diverted to a different reservoir in the region to prevent what remains from becoming undrinkable.

Despite a slight recovery during winter, Amemet says, the dry spell has continued with all of Spain in drought conditions since January 2022.

The situation in Catalonia, however, is critical. Water levels in reservoirs in the region are well below average. Restrictions are already in place for agriculture and industrial water use while residents can’t use drinking water to wash cars or fill swimming pools.

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Italy readies €7.8 billion water crisis package

Italy was one of the European countries hit hardest by last year’s droughts with the government declaring a state of emergency in five regions.

The Po is the country’s longest river - crossing from the border with France and Switzerland to the Adriatic Sea. In 2022, the river basin suffered the worst drought in 70 years with water shortages affecting everything from agriculture to green energy generation.

Andrea PATTARO / AFP
This photo taken on July 5, 2022, shows a boy with a wooden stick on the river bank of the Po River in Ficarolo village.Andrea PATTARO / AFP

Now millions of people in regions vulnerable to drought, like Lombardy and Piedmont, could face more restrictions this year after a dry winter. Lake Garda in the north of the country has already dried up and low water levels in Venice’s famous canals made it impossible for boats to pass through.

But a lack of rainfall and hot weather isn’t the only problem.

Italy draws more drinking water from its lakes, rivers and reservoirs than any other country in the European Union, according to the Italian National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT).

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AP Photo/Luigi Costantini
Some of Venice's secondary canals dried up in February.AP Photo/Luigi Costantini

ISTAT also recently revealed that Italy’s aqueducts lost 42 per cent of the water they carried in 2020. That is the highest proportion ever recorded. One out of every four towns lost more than 55 per cent of water to leaks and in five out of seven areas, these leaks are getting worse.

After last year’s unprecedented emergency, Italy can’t afford to waste the water it does have.

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni told parliament on 21 March that a “national water plan” was being worked on. It would include improvements to infrastructure and an awareness campaign about the need to save resources.

In a recent interview, Environment Minister Gilberto Pichetto Fratin said the government was readying a €7.8 billion package to help the country deal with the water crisis.

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