Europe is joining a number of other regions on the planet in suffering a prolonged water crisis; and it is one that shows little sign of abating. To this can be added the near catastrophic conditions that exist in other parts of the globe, where ready and secure access to water supplies is more aspiration than reality.
Since 2018, according to satellite data analysed by researchers from the Institute of Geodesy at Graz University of Technology (TU Graz), the continent has been enduring increasingly dire drought conditions. Groundwater levels have been, according to the institute, low, despite the occasional dramatic flooding event. Even through winter, there has been no relief.
In a piece published in Geophysical Research Letters, Eva Boergens and her fellow authors picked up on sharp water shortages in Central Europe during the summer months of 2018 and 2019. “In the summer months of 2018, Central and Northern Europe experienced exceptionally dry conditions […] with parts of Central Europe receiving less than 50% of the long-time mean precipitation”.
In July and August that year, vicious heatwaves aided in inducing drought conditions. Much the same pattern was repeated in 2019: below-average precipitation, beating heatwaves in June and July. The consequences for such deficits in water, the authors note, are severe to “agricultural productivity, forest management, and industrial production, with the latter cut back by disrupted transport on inland waterways due to extremely low water levels.” Levels since have barely risen.
The researchers from TU Graz also note the bleak picture from prolonged drought, one all too familiar to those inhabiting dry swathes of land on such continents as Africa and Australia. The dry riverbed and bodies of stagnant water are becoming more common features of the European landscape. Aquatic species are losing their habitats and ecological disruption is becoming the norm.
From the human perspective, the water crisis has also encouraged an energy shortage. The French nuclear industry has prominently struggled with inadequate supply, even in the face of a parliamentary bill to accelerate the construction of new reactors. As Marine Tondelier, national secretary of Europe Ecologie-Les Verts (EELV, Greens), declared on March 7, “Once and for all, let’s say it, simply and firmly: at this rate, there will soon not be enough water in our rivers to cool the nuclear power plants!”
In Spain, the country’s weather service, Aemet, has concluded that the situation is nothing less than extraordinary. Last November, Catalan authorities imposed a number of water restrictions, limiting the refilling of pools, limiting showers to five minutes, prohibiting the washing of cars and cutting down the watering of gardens to two times a week.
In Barcelona, water supplies responsible for nourishing six million people, are at risk. The Sau reservoir, for instance, is at a mere 9 percent of capacity, necessitating the removal of fish to prevent them from perishing.
In Italy, the mighty Po has declined in the worst drought in seven decades. Supplies have fallen in lakes and reservoirs. This is critical for a country which relies more than any other EU member state on those sources for their water supply. The Italian Institute of Statistics (ISTAT) recently noted that the country’s aqueducts lost 42 percent of carried water supply in 2020.
Last year, over 100 cities in Italy alone were called upon to limit water consumption as feasibly as possible. States of emergency were declared in five regions. This has sufficiently concerned the Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni to take a number of measures, though these have yet to bear fruit. In a meeting chaired by Meloni and attended by various top government representatives, a decision was reached that a steering committee would be established involving all relevant ministries “in order to define a special national water plan in agreement with regional and local authorities”. This would involve as yet unspecified technologies.
Legislative measures would also be passed “containing the necessary simplifications and waivers and speeding up essential works to cope with drought conditions”. And, for good measure, “an awareness-raising campaign about using water responsibly” would be launched.
Despite such conditions, a number of European states have struggled to find measures of coping. One obvious response is recycling water. But France, by way of example, has a mere 77 of 33,000 treatment plants in the country up for the task.
The picture only promises to get uglier and more desperate. The 2022 Global Water Monitor Report does little to provide any cheer, observing that the last two decades had “seen increased air temperatures and declining air humidity, increasing heat stress and water requirements for people, crops and ecosystems alike.”
Even in the face of such climatic disturbance affecting that most vital of resources for life, countries will still find the miraculous energy and industry to wage war or at least prepare for it, all the while continuing to despoil environments. In time, the proposition that war will even be waged over water supply is a distinct, disturbing possibility.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: (email@example.com)