European media has been full of dramatic pictures of drying, exposed riverbeds. Some of Europe’s biggest rivers — Rhine, Po, Loire, Danube — which are usually formidable waterways, are unable to support even mid-sized boats. As water levels have fallen, remains of sunken ships and ominously named hunger stones — rocks engraved by previous generations during earlier periods of extraordinary dryness — have come out of erstwhile depths.
The drought has been billed as the worst in 500 years. It is being said that never has a European summer been so dry since 1540, when a year-long drought killed tens of thousands of people. The dry spell this year follows a record-breaking heatwave that saw temperatures in many countries rise to historic highs.
The impact has been debilitating. Water transport has suffered badly, and is having cascading effects. Power production has been hit, leading to electricity shortages and a further increase in energy prices already pushed high by the war in Ukraine. Food is sharply more expensive in many countries, and drinking water is being rationed in some regions.
‘Worst in 500 years’
Earlier European droughts — such as those in 2003, 2010, and 2018 — too were compared to the 1540 event. Much like now, the 2018 drought was described as the “worst in 500 years”. But last week, a senior scientist at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre said this year could turn out to be worse than 2018, though data were still being analysed.
“We haven’t analysed fully the event because it is still ongoing, but based on my experience I think that this is perhaps even more extreme than 2018,” senior researcher Andrea Toreti said. “Just to give you an idea, the 2018 drought was so extreme that looking back at least the last 500 years, there were no other events similar to the drought of 2018, but this year I think it is really worse than 2018.”
The “worst in 500 years” description may be still not settled, but the impacts of this event are expected to be far worse than anything experienced in the recent past. Europe has been facing large scale climatic anomalies for over six months — precipitation has been far less than usual, while temperatures have soared to unprecedented levels. And this has come on top of the massive energy and food-supply implications of the Ukraine war.
Waterways and power
Apart from agriculture and drinking water supplies, the most visible impact has been the disruption in Europe’s waterways. Europe depends heavily on its rivers to move cargo in an economical manner, including coal to power plants. With water levels down to less than a metre in some stretches, most large ships have been rendered unusable.
Supply disruptions in coal has hit power generation. Lack of adequate water has affected the operation of nuclear power plants, which use large amounts of water as coolant. The result has been a shortage of electricity and an unprecedented rise in energy prices. Household energy costs in the UK are projected to double by October from the levels of April. There is talk of power blackouts in winter.
A grim outlook
An “analytical report” of the Global Drought Observatory (GDO), an agency of the European Commission, released on Tuesday said about 64% of the continent’s landmass was experiencing drought conditions, as per data available till August 10. And the situation was only “worsening” as of that date, it said.
Nearly 90% of the geographical area in Switzerland and France, about 83% in Germany, and close to 75% in Italy, was facing agricultural drought. Some areas, especially the UK, have received rain in the last one week, but it has made only a marginal difference to the overall situation.
The situation is unlikely to improve substantially in the coming months. The GDO’s report suggests that the prevailing conditions could extend up to November.
No rain, record heat
Droughts are part of the natural climate system, and are not uncommon in Europe. It is the severity of this drought that is making it stand out. The extraordinary dry spell has been the result of a prolonged and significant deviation from normal weather patterns.
Rainfall has been scanty in several countries. The UK had its driest July since 1935, and France since 1959. The Netherlands, which receives plenty of rainfall, is having one of the driest years ever, and Germany received only half its normal rain in July. In fact, rainfall has been below normal since the winter.
In addition, unusually high temperatures have led to increased evaporation of surface water and soil moisture. The severity of the current drought can also, at least partially, be attributed to the fact that it has appeared so soon after the 2018 event. Many areas in Europe were still to recover from that drought. Soil moisture had not been restored to normal, and the current dry spell has sapped it further of moisture.
Drought in China, US too
Many parts of China too are headed towards a serious drought, being described as the worst in 60 years. The country’s longest river, Yangtze, which caters to about a third of the Chinese population, is seeing water levels drop to record lows, according to a report in the South China Morning Post. Two of the country’s biggest freshwater lakes, Poyang and Dongting, have touched their lowest levels since 1951, the report said.
The water scarcity is leading to problems similar to those in Europe. Power shortages in some areas have begun to force factories to shut, adding to the strain on global supply chains.
Over 40% of the area in the United States too is under drought conditions currently, affecting about 130 million people, according to the US government.