Drought alert as Europe dries up
Fri 27 May 2011
Much of Europe is now gripped by severe water shortages – and it is becoming an increasingly common problem
After a long, hard winter it feels good to be basking in hot temperatures. But alarm bells are already ringing across Europe over the potential for widespread water shortages.
Rising temperatures and lack of rain mean drought is a growing problem in Europe – and an expensive one. A European Commission study found that droughts in Europe have cost the economy €100 billion over the last 30 years.
The serious drought of 2003 across central and western Europe caused estimated economic damage of more than €12 billion.
Agriculture and industry in southern Spain and Portugal were hit by severe drought in 2004. France and the UK suffered similar problems in 2006.
This year is shaping up to be seriously dry. Officials in the Swiss canton of Zurich say they are facing their worst drought since 1864. In the East and North Netherlands, fairs were cancelled due to fire risk.
Thirty-five years on from the great drought of 1976, when major water restrictions were placed on businesses and households in England and Wales, Spring 2011 has been the driest in more than a century.
Across the Channel, six out of 10 reservoirs in France are holding water levels far below normal and farm irrigation controls are likely.
European Commission signals concerns
In its timely third report addressing droughts in Europe, published in April, the European Commission said it expects, “further deterioration of the water situation in Europe if temperatures keep rising as a result of climate change… Water is no longer the problem of a few regions, but now concerns all 500 million Europeans.”
According to Alexandros Georgiadis at Impact Forecasting, part of Aon Benfield, from 1990 to 2100 the continental temperature increase is projected to be between 2.0 and 6.3 deg C.
“The climate change over Europe is projected to result in much more frequent hot summers, with subsequent increase of heat waves, and less frequent cold winters,” Georgiadis says. “The warming in South Europe, in combination with the decreased precipitation, is expected to have severe effects in the form of more frequent droughts, increased risk for wild fires and reduced fresh water availability from surface sources.”
In addition to the obvious and well documented impact of drought on agriculture, water shortages can impact the economy in other ways. Water management and hydrology expert Henny van Lanen, spokesman for the European Drought Centre says that drought has big implications for the energy sector.
“If the hydropower sector in Scandinavia and Central European mountainous regions is hit by water shortages this creates short term problems - but there are also long term implications in terms of the carbon emissions created to replace hydropower capacity,” he explains.
Non-hydro power plants still need water for cooling. But power plants are not usually allowed to abstract water when river temperatures exceed 28oC.
“Again, here there are potential knock-on effects for the environment because when water levels are lower rivers are warmed by the release of cooling water, altering the aquatic ecosystem,” van Lanen says.
In the Netherlands, such problems mean power limitations now happen in two out five years.
Another problem created by low river levels is the disruption caused for navigation. In 2003, for example, drought created a number of bottle necks in the River Rhine because ships were unable to pass in places. Waiting times at sluices in other European rivers were longer due to prevention of water loss.
Drought can cause damage to property, and in France in 2003, drought-induced soil shrinkage led to about €500 million in damages to buildings.
Van Lanen, who is also associate professor of hydrology in the Centre for Water & Climate at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, says more action to protect water resources is needed.
“Effective water pricing is going up the agenda across Europe, with greater use of water metering. Planned water (aquifer) storage, soil water conservation, the prioritisation of water use and also land use planning will become more important, making businesses and the agri community more aware of the value of water,” he says. “People need to be reminded that water will not continue to be a free commodity.”