The Loire River in France is at its lowest level as Europe is experiencing what is considered its worst drought in at least 500 years.
Guillaume Souvant | Afp | Getty Images
Europe’s rivers are running dry after a long spell of extremely hot weather, raising fears over food and energy production at a time when prices are already skyrocketing due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
A severe lack of rainfall and a succession of heat waves from May have taken a visible toll on the region’s waterways.
In France, in some places it has become possible to cross the Loire River on foot; there are concerns that the water level at an important German junction on the Rhine, one of Europe’s most important waterways, could lead to commercial traffic again; and the drought-stricken waters of Italy’s Po River have revealed artifacts dating back to World War II — including a 50-foot barge and a previously submerged bomb.
“We haven’t seen this level of drought in a very long time. Water levels in some of the major waterways are lower than they have been in decades,” Matthew Oxenford, senior Europe and climate policy analyst at The Economist Intelligence Unit, a research and consultancy firm, told CNBC by phone.
Wreckage of a German World War II warship is seen in the Danube in Prahovo, Serbia, August 18, 2022.
Fedja Grulovic | Reuters
“For some of the main channels there is very little leeway, sometimes less than 30 centimeters before the channel is completely unusable for any kind of shipping,” he added.
“So that’s going to have very significant impacts on the economic and human activity that takes place around these waterways, as we’re probably going to be in some form of drought for a while yet.”
Biggest drought in 500 years
According to a preliminary analysis by the Joint Research Center of the European Union, Europe is in the throes of what will likely be the worst drought in the region in at least 500 years.
In early August, the Global Drought Observatory report said about two-thirds of Europe was facing some sort of drought warning, meaning soils have dried up and vegetation is “showing signs of stress.”
The analysis found that almost all European rivers have dried up to some degree, while water and heat stress “significantly reduced” summer crop yields. The forecasts for grain maize, soybeans and sunflowers were expected to be 16%, 15% and 12% respectively below the average of the previous five years.
That’s because food prices remain stubbornly high amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, a major producer of commodities such as wheat, corn and sunflower oil.
The EU report warned that it is likely to become warmer and drier than usual in the Western Europe-Mediterranean region until November.
Certainly, the increasing climate emergency has made high temperatures and droughts more intense and widespread. And lower nighttime temperatures, which typically provide critical relief from the hot days, are disappearing as the planet warms.
“The problem is the severity of this particular drought,” Axel Bronstert, a professor of hydrology and climatology at the University of Potsdam in Germany, told CNBC by phone.
“Growing up in central Europe, people usually like the sun — but now we’re hoping for rain,” Bronstert said, noting that it was previously unheard of for some of the region’s smaller rivers to dry up completely at this time of year. .
“Without really strong rainfall in the coming weeks, there is a good chance that the water level will drop further,” he added.
In addition to the ecological and health effects of the drought, Bronstert said desiccated conditions had resulted in a “very poor” crop for many different crops in Germany.
In Italy’s Po Valley, home to about 30% of the country’s agricultural output, scorching heat and exceptionally dry conditions have affected maize and sunflower production.
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Rising food and energy prices have led to a sharp rise in inflation, with consumer prices in the 19 countries that use the euro reaching a new record high of 9.1% in August.
“I think the bigger point I want to emphasize is that in a sense anomalies like this will become more common in the coming years because of climate change,” the EIU’s Oxenford said, citing the possibility of more intense droughts, storms, heat waves and flooding in the region. Europe.
“So I think the takeaway for dealing with the economic impact of all this is that countries will have to invest more in preparedness for things that used to be very uncommon — but which will now become much more common as a result of climate change putting a lot of activity patterns on its head.” head that have been built up over the centuries.”
Race to secure the energy supply
Oxenford said the economic impact of Europe’s evaporating waterways is likely to be “multi-faceted”, highlighting the prospect of a halt to shipping along the Rhine as one of the biggest risks.
With a length of approximately 1,320 kilometers, the Rhine is one of the longest and most important rivers in Europe. It connects the main port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands through the industrial heart of Germany and further south to landlocked Switzerland.
The water levels of the German Rhine have stabilized above crisis level in recent weeks. However, forecasts of a prolonged period of high temperatures and scant rainfall have exacerbated fears that transportation of everything from food to chemicals to energy could soon grind to a halt.
According to German government data, the water level at Kaub — a monitoring station west of Frankfurt and a major bottleneck for waterborne freight traffic — is set to drop to 86 centimeters (about 34 inches) by the end of the week. A normal water level would be around 200 centimeters.
In 2018, the water level of the Rhine dropped to just 30 centimeters in some places, forcing ships to temporarily stop carrying cargo.
An unloaded barge moves along the Rhine at low tide in Duisburg, West Germany, on August 9, 2022.
Ina Fassbender | Afp | Getty Images
Andrew Kenningham, chief economist for Europe at consultancy Capital Economics, said in a research note that if the Rhine water level continues to fall, it could deduct 0.2 percentage points from Germany’s gross domestic product in the third and fourth quarters of this year.
However, Kenningham said the drop in water levels in the Rhine is a relatively minor problem for German industry compared to the region’s mounting gas crisis.
Elsewhere, the warming temperatures of France’s rivers in recent weeks have threatened to curtail the country’s already low nuclear production. Summer heat waves have further warmed rivers such as the Rhone and Garonne, which state energy supplier EDF uses to cool its nuclear power reactors.
France’s nuclear energy regulator has since extended temporary waivers to allow five power plants to continue discharging hot water into rivers in anticipation of an impending energy crisis, Reuters reported.
And in Norway, a northern European country that relies heavily on hydropower, the lack of rain has caused the amount of electricity generated by dams to drop rapidly. As a result, the Norwegian government announced in early August that it plans to restrict electricity exports.
European governments are making efforts to fill underground storage facilities with gas supplies to have enough fuel to keep homes warm for months to come.
Russia – which supplied about 40% of the EU’s gas last year – has drastically reduced flows to Europe in recent weeks, citing faulty and delayed equipment.
— Emma Newburger of CNBC contributed to this report.