Monday, October 3, 2022 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Europe endures devastating drought as rivers run low

Europe is suffering through a devastating drought that has left many of the continent’s iconic rivers dangerously low. A European Union senior researcher warned this may be Europe's worst drought in five centuries.

(CN) — Much of Europe is in the midst of a historic drought with water levels dangerously low in lakes and rivers, a situation that's caused drinking water shortages, fish kills, crop losses and disruptions of key barge routes.

About 60% of Europe and the United Kingdom are suffering from drought conditions caused by an unusually dry winter and spring exacerbated by summer heat waves, according to the European Drought Observatory. A European Union scientist warned that the continent was on track to experience its worst drought in 500 years.

“A staggering portion of Europe is currently exposed to warning and alert drought levels,” the observatory said in a recent report.

The dry conditions have fueled wildfires across Europe too, with about 1.6 million acres consumed by fires, according to an Agence France-Press report based on EU data. This year could surpass the record of 2.4 million burnt acres in 2017. Wildfires have been particularly awful in Spain where about 605,000 acres have burned.

Water levels in rivers across Europe are so low that “hunger stones” carved with centuries-old warnings of famine and hardship have been exposed for a second time since a 2018 drought. A stone in the Elbe River dating back to a 1616 drought ominously reads: “If you see me, weep.”

The Loire, France's longest river, is so low that numerous towns have been left without water and in many places the river looks more like a creek.

Faced with an energy crunch caused by the Ukraine war, French authorities have temporarily allowed nuclear power plants to break rules that limit the amount of water used for cooling that can be dumped into rivers when water levels are low, a move that has environmentalists concerned the discharged hot water is putting additional stress on river flora and fauna. Fish kills have been reported in France and other parts of Europe.

A container ships passes Pfalzgrafenstein castle in the middle of the river Rhine in Kaub, Germany, on Friday, Aug. 12, 2022. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

In Germany, the Rhine is so low barges are forced to carry much lighter loads and shipping companies warn barge traffic may be stopped altogether if the river keeps falling. Barges carry coal for power plants and raw materials for industrial powerhouses such as steelmaker Thyssen and chemical giant BASF. A halt to barge traffic would be very costly.

Italy's vital Po is about 6 feet lower than normal and the parched conditions are leading to massive crop losses. The Po valley accounts for between 30% and 40% of Italy’s agricultural production. Rice growers warn that up to 60% of their crop may be ruined. Drinking water supplies are very low too along the Po.

The water level on the Danube, Europe's longest river, has hit its lowest mark ever and dredges in Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania have been deployed to keep the river navigable.

Andrea Toreti, a senior researcher with the European Commission’s Joint Research Center, said recently that this year's drought is on pace to be worse than 2018.

“There were no other events in the past 500 [years] similar to the drought of 2018. But this year, I think, is worse,” Toreti said.

He said the risk was very high that drought conditions will only worsen over the next three months.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.