Drought in Europe 2022: California is not alone in the crisis

Drought in Europe 2022: California is not alone in the crisis

Each spring and summer, Frédéric Esniol plants millions of lettuce seeds sold in major grocery chains, making his family farm a gem in this historically rich region of France.

But this year, a menacing combination of dry skies and record heat killed about half of its water-loving crop, threatening a 270-acre business about 70 miles northeast of the Mediterranean port city of Marseille.

“We have never seen such a drought before,” said Asniol, 55, a fourth-generation farmer.

It’s not just France. A parched Europe is facing what scientists say could be the worst water shortage in hundreds of years.

Farms lie fallow and vineyards are burned. Reservoirs and aquifers are depleted. The rivers have dried up, revealing Roman-era artifacts and unexploded ordnance. Forest fires raged in a dozen countries. Dozens of small towns and villages are overflowing with water because the taps have run dry.

Sunflower fields have dried up in the Cochersberg region of eastern France as Europe faces a drought that has sparked wildfires, dried up rivers and devastated crops.

(Jean-Francois Badias/Associated Press)

Overall, 64% of the continent — 13 of the 27 countries in the European Union, plus the UK, Serbia, Moldova and Ukraine — are either facing drought or in imminent danger, according to a recent report. report by EU scientists who have predicted at least three more months of “warmer and drier” days.

The United Kingdom “reminded me this summer of times when I visited California: hot, dry and almost no rain,” said James Cheshire, professor of weather at University College London. “I guess in many parts of Europe it’s not too different. This is a very unusual time.”

The Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, the region in which Esniol’s farm is located, are accustomed to warm and dry summers. triple digit this year heat waves Records have been broken in the south of France, and rainfall is half the usual.

Esniol lettuce, prized for its crispy leaf heads with a delicate white core, is sold throughout France at Leclerc and Carrefour, the largest national grocery chains.

But in July, the government ordered the region to drastically reduce its water consumption, and the next month the dam that supplied his farm dried up.

Dry and sun-bleached grass covers Greenwich Park in London.

Sun-scorched grass spreads across London’s Greenwich Park, against the backdrop of the Royal House and the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf.

(Frank Augstein/Associated Press)

Officials have set aside reserves for drinking water, firefighting and emergencies, as well as limited irrigation on farms that produce staple foods. Even that couldn’t stop Esniola’s lettuce from withering in the relentless sun.

To make up for some of the loss, he raised the wholesale price by 26% to 63 cents per person.

Surrounding ranchers suffered even more.

Lily Goletto, a friend of Esniol’s who raises 850 sheep, said she paid $22,000 this year to buy extra feed after everything on her pasture – sunflowers, sorghum, grass and alfalfa – died. It still won’t be enough.

“We’re going to have a sad autumn,” said Goletto, who plans to sell 150 sheep. “We will still lose money, but we have no other choice. All in the same boat. They also have a drought, which means that they also do not collect anything. It’s a vicious cycle and it’s getting worse and worse.”

Drought is not new to Europe, which has a wide variety of climates and rainfall patterns, and the current drought began in 2018. But scientists say man-made climate change is transforming the continent, making it more likely to experience more permanent drought, as in the American West.

The dried river Tillet in Lux, France.

The dried river Tillet in Lux, France.

(Nicholas Garriga/Associated Press)

“We always think that Europe is a water rich region, especially its central and northern parts,” said Rohini Kumar, a hydrologist at the Center for Environmental Research. Helmholtz in Leipzig, Germany. “Never again. We’re not rich in water. We’ve been dry for a couple of years. We need to start rethinking what crops we grow and how we manage water.”

The shift could be linked to a high-pressure system in the North Atlantic known as the Azores, which expanded as the planet warmed, the researchers say. The system is pushing rain northward, causing drier conditions in Portugal, Spain and the western Mediterranean.

Politicians and activists have seized on the crisis as a reminder that the world cannot meet its greenhouse gas emission reduction targets and is on track for even worse climate change impacts, including more fires, stronger storms and rising sea levels.

“Climate change is killing,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said recently as he inspected trees scorched by a massive wildfire in Extremadura, a region bordering Portugal. “It’s killing people, it’s killing our ecosystem, it’s killing biodiversity.”

The European Commission estimates that the current drought has cost the EU dearly $9 billion a year, a figure he says could rise to $45 billion by the end of the century as the climate continues to warm.

The most immediate concern is agriculture.

In Italy, rice farmers who rely on the heavily depleted Po River are warning of a shortage of risotto. In Spain, the world’s largest olive oil producer, reduced rainfall has cut production by a third.

dried up river

A dry bed of the Po River on August 11 in Sermida, Italy.

(Luigi Navarra/Associated Press)

A drought struck in Germany as farmers were still suffering from another climate-related natural disaster, a flood that destroyed crops in 2021. Yields have improved this year, but still lag behind averages over the past decade. Farming groups say the potato and sugar beet harvest expected later this year could be particularly disappointing if the drought continues.

“The prolonged drought in many regions of the country shows once again that farmers are feeling the effects of climate change very directly,” said Joachim Ruckwid, president of the German Farmers Association.

Perhaps the most troubling consequence of the German drought was the depletion of the Rhine. When the river receded near the town of Emmerich, close to the border with the Netherlands, this summer, the ship’s hull slowly appeared in the silt. It turned out to be De Hoop, which sank in 1895 after it caught fire when a dynamite freighter moored nearby exploded.


The wreckage of a German World War II ship in the Danube River near Prahovo, Serbia.

(Darko Vojinovic / Associated Press)

Authorities in Bonn, Germany, have warned residents not to walk on dry riverbanks because WWII unexploded ordnance that floats to the surface could explode.

The river that crosses Germany is a lifeline for the economy, its significance is akin to that of the Mississippi in the United States.

At some point last month, the already shallow section fell 15 inches deep, making it impassable to cargo ships. Even in deeper places, shippers have to reduce the amount of cargo to keep the boats higher in the water.

“Climate change is constantly exacerbating the situation on the Rhine,” said Marco Speksniider, who oversees 25 ships cruising the river for shipping company Contargo.

“There is less snow in the Alps, which means less water in Lake Constance and less water in the Rhine,” he said, referring to the lake, which borders Germany, Austria and Switzerland. “It makes it difficult to plan ahead because water levels are often low.”

Of course, the water levels will eventually rise again, which could create other problems in the Netherlands. Drought threatens the 19th-century levee network that the low-lying country relies on to prevent flooding. Often built of peat, dams soak up water like sponges, and without enough rain, holes and cracks appear in them.

Even Britain, known for its year-round rainfall and abundant greenery, has been forced to grapple with the prospect of a drier future. Rainfall in July was just over a third of what was normal in London, and most of the rest of the south of England received about one-fifth of an inch, the lowest amount in a month since the government began keeping records in 1836.

The parks in London were crisp and brown until recent rains gave a respite. Trees are now showing signs of what scientists have called “false autumn,” when leaves change color and fall off earlier than usual in response to the changing climate.

“I came here for the last summer vacation, but it’s more like a dry LA park mixed with New York autumn,” said Janice Tran, a 30-year-old San Francisco hiker who had a picnic with friends late last year. month. in London Fields park in East Central London.

Ian Holman, a professor who heads the Center for Water, Environment and Development at Britain’s Cranfield University, said the drought has ruined the image of “the UK as a green and pleasant land”.

“Usually we don’t have a dry season and we get the same amount of precipitation in summer as we do in winter,” he said.

A woman uses an umbrella near Big Ben.

On August 16, light rain fell in London, the first downpour after an unusually long dry period.

(Frank Augstein/Associated Press)

In August, authorities declared all nine regions of England dry as utilities banned garden watering.

Lidl, a discount grocery chain, said it would be selling “undersized” products to make up for an expected shortage. Another chain, Waitrose, said it would expand its “slightly less than perfect” range of products to include apples, carrots and strawberries.

“As long as my food bills don’t go up and everything is safe and edible, I don’t have a problem with my fruits and vegetables looking a little awkward,” Jessica Steiner, a 42-year-old web designer, said while browsing the products. passage at Lidl in East London.

Back in France, Esniol contemplates his future. Instead of throwing away his unsellable lettuce, he let Goletto bring her sheep to his fields to devour it.

“It was an old lettuce, a broken lettuce, leftover heads,” Asniol said. “But at least it was fresh, which is what the animals need.”

However, he knows that the survival of the farm founded by his great grandparents may depend on forces beyond his control.

“If we have a nice autumn with lots of rain, that will help. It might even end well,” Asniol said, “but if we don’t, we’re done for.”

Times staff correspondent Kalim reported from London, and special correspondent Johnson from Manet. Special Correspondent Eric Kirschbaum in Berlin contributed to this report.

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