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Europe drought affects major rivers like the Danube, the Rhine and the Po

17 August 2022

A goose looks for water in the dried bed of a lake.
A goose looks for water in the dried bed of Lake Velence in Hungary.(AP: Anna Szilagyi)

An unprecedented drought has afflicted nearly half of the European continent, damaging farm economies, forcing water restrictions, causing wildfires and threatening aquatic species.

Key points:

  • The European Commission's Joint Research Centre has warned drought conditions will worsen
  • A meteorologist says the drought is due to long periods of dry weather caused by changes in world weather systems
  • Some countries have restricted water use and shipping goods has become diffcult on major waterways like the Rhine and the Danube

There has been no significant rainfall for almost two months in Western, Central and Southern Europe.

The dry period has been predicted to continue in what experts said could be the worst drought in 500 years — leaving dry and cracked reservoirs in Spain and falling water levels on major arteries like the Danube, the Rhine and the Po.

Climate change has exacerbated conditions as hotter temperatures speed up evaporation, and reduced snowfall in the winter limits supplies of fresh water available for irrigation in the summer.

Europe isn't alone in the crisis, with drought conditions also reported in East Africa, the western United States and northern Mexico.

'All fish will die'

Dead fish lay on a dried-up river bed.
Without rain, more fish will die in dried-up rivers like France's river Tille.(AP: Nicholas Garriga)

Jean-Philippe Couasné, chief technician at the local Federation for Fishing and Protection of the Aquatic Environment, listed the species of fish that had died in the river Tille, in France's Burgundy region.

"It's heartbreaking," he said.

The sun beats down on a dried-up bed of a river, with green trees and shrubs along the bank.
There is a very high risk of dry conditions continuing for the next three months, an expert says.(AP: Nicholas Garriga)

"On average, about 8,000 litres per second are flowing … and now — 0 litres."

He said without rain, the river would "continue to empty. And yes, all fish will die".

"They are trapped upstream and downstream, there's no water coming in, so the oxygen level will keep decreasing as the [water] volume will go down," Mr Couasné said.

A dried-up river bed with no water passes under a low three arch bridge.
White dust covers the wide trench that was the river Tille.(AP: Nicholas Garriga)

Worst drought in 500 years

The European Commission's Joint Research Centre warned this week that drought conditions would worsen and potentially affect 47 per cent of the continent.

Andrea Toreti, a senior researcher at the European Drought Observatory, said a drought in 2018 was so extreme that there were no similar events for the last 500 years, "but this year, I think, it is really worse".

The river Rhine is pictured with low water agains the backdrop of the city of Cologne, Germany.
Water levels in the river Rhine are falling.(AP: Martin Meissner)

For the next three months, "we see still a very high risk of dry conditions over Western and Central Europe, as well as the UK," Mr Toreti said.

The current situation is the result of long periods of dry weather caused by changes in world weather systems, according to meteorologist Peter Hoffmann of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

"It's just that in summer we feel it the most," he said.

"But actually the drought builds up across the year."

Climate change has lessened the temperature differences between regions, sapping the forces that drive the jet stream that normally brings wet Atlantic weather to Europe, he said.

A dry river bed runs to a low river that travels into the distance past fields and a village.
Italy's river Po, which runs 652 kilometres from the north-western city of Turin to Venice, is caught in the unprecedented drought that's hit nearly half of Europe.(AP: Luigi Navarra)

A weaker or unstable jet stream can result in unusually hot air coming to Europe from North Africa, leading to prolonged periods of heat.

The reverse is also true. A polar vortex of cold air from the Arctic can cause freezing conditions far south of where it would normally reach.

Transporting goods becoming difficult

The drought has caused some European countries to impose restrictions on water usage, and shipping is endangered on the Rhine and the Danube.

People take photos on the tip of a Island that's exposed due to low water level of a river.
The southern tip of Margaret Island can be seen due to low water level of the river Danube in Budapest, Hungary.(AP: Anna Szilagyi)

The Rhine could reach critically low levels in the coming days, making the transport of goods — including coal and gasoline — increasingly difficult.

On the Danube, authorities in Serbia have started dredging sand to deepen the waterway and keep vessels moving smoothly.

In neighbouring Hungary, wide parts of popular Lake Velence, near Budapest, have turned into patches of dried mud, beaching small boats.

An aerial shot shows boats laying in a small port in a dried lake bed.
Boats are stranded in small port in a lake bed in a port in Velence, Hungary.(AP: Anna Szilagyi)

Water quality has deteriorated to the point that a ban on swimming was imposed at one beach on weekends.

Stretches of the Po, Italy's longest river, are so low that barges and boats that sank decades ago are resurfacing.

Agricultural industries hammered by drought

Dry and sun burnt grass across a large London park with the backdrop of the city.
Britain is bracing for another heatwave that will last longer than July's record-breaking hot spell, with highs of up to 35C expected next week.(AP: Frank Augstein)

The drought also has affected southern England, which received only 10 per cent of its average rainfall in July.

Firefighters are battling an unprecedented number of grass fires and people in several areas have been banned from watering their lawns.

The Rivers Trust charity said England's chalk streams — which allow underground springs to bubble up through the spongy layer of rock — were drying up, endangering aquatic wildlife like kingfishers and trout.

Even in countries like Spain and Portugal, which are used to long periods without rain, there have been major consequences.

In the Spanish region of Andalucia, some avocado farmers have had to sacrifice hundreds of trees to save others from wilting as the Vinuela reservoir in Malaga province dropped to only 13 per cent capacity, down 55 per cent from a year ago.

A view of a dry river bed near a village.
Water shortages have reduced Serbia's hydropower production.(AP: Darko Vojinovic)

Some European farmers are using water from the tap for their livestock in areas where ponds and streams have gone dry, using up to 100 litres a day per cow.

EU corn production is expected to be 12.5 million tons below last year and sunflower production is projected to be 1.6 million tons lower, according to a report from S&P Global Commodity Insights.