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Climate ChangeCould the Drying Up of Europe’s Great Rivers Be the Recent Normal?

Could the Drying Up of Europe’s Great Rivers Be the Recent Normal?

Along the fabled Danube River, which snakes its way for 1,800 miles from the Black Forest in Germany to the Black Sea in Romania, scores of towns — comparable to the small Romanian port of Zimnicea on the Bulgarian border — rely upon the waterway for his or her livelihood. But this summer’s epic drought and historic high temperatures, now in a fifth grueling month, have depleted the once-mighty Danube, upending every part that Zimnicea’s residents — port employees, farmers, the shipping industry, anglers, restaurant owners, and families — had for generations counted on to sustain themselves. Never in living memory has the river run so low, with large areas of mud-cracked river bottom exposed along Zimnicea’s shorelines, the dead mollusks evidence of the devastating toll on riverine life.

With the Danube flowing at lower than half its usual summer volume, dozens of cargo barges lie motionless in Zimnicea’s harbor, waiting for a turn to make use of the one channel deep enough for passage. Locals are collecting the scant rainwater to make use of for household purposes so as to save potable water from the Danube for drinking. Children play along the shoreline’s latest beaches.

As elsewhere along the Danube — and, indeed, across much of Europe this summer — emergency dredging teams have been called in to deepen the riverway to interrupt the cargo jam. Nevertheless, grain transports emanating from Ukraine — with a lot of its Black Sea ports controlled by Russia, the Danube is an alternative route for the war-wracked country to export foodstuffs — have been forced to shed cargo weight so as to pass, after they can pass in any respect.

“At towns up and down the Danube, drought and climate change tackle an existential meaning,” says an authority.

Across southern Romania, much of which relies on the Danube for fresh drinking water, lots of of villages are rationing water supplies and curtailing the irrigation of farmland that Europe relies upon for corn, grain, sunflowers, and vegetables. The cruise ships that normally ferry tourists along the enduring waterway are docked. In the primary six months of 2022, Romania’s hydropower utility Hidroelectrica generated a third less electricity than it normally does. And Romanian wheat farmers say that drought has cost them a fifth of their harvest. Romania is certainly one of Europe’s largest wheat producers, and all of the more essential for the international market in light of Russia’s blockage of much of Ukraine’s wheat exports.

“At towns up and down the Danube, drought and climate change tackle an existential meaning,” explains Nick Thorpe, writer of The Danube: A Journey Upriver from the Black Sea to the Black Forest. “In contrast to city dwellers, they’re having this disaster unfold before their eyes.”

Nearly two-thirds of Europe has suffered drought conditions this yr — the worst dry spell in 500 years — and scientists say global warming has played a big role within the crisis. The warmth wave has wreaked havoc on lots of the continent’s waterways — great and small, from the Loire to the Rhine — with wide-ranging knock-on effects for Europe’s food supply, commerce, water access, energy systems, and ecology. And scientists warn that if hot, dry summers grow to be a long-term trend, a few of these waterways may never get better.


Along the Rhine, barges that carry coal, oil, and commodities that offer hundreds of thousands of individuals are waylaid. By July, water levels in Italy’s Po were so low that the federal government declared a state of emergency in northern Italy, where vast fields of crops were abandoned. In France, the warmed waters of the Rhône and Garonne can not cool the systems of nuclear power plants, forcing quite a few plants to shut down. And lots of of tributaries to the larger rivers are in even worse shape: bone dry.

In early August, France’s prime minister, Élisabeth Borne, said that France is within the midst of the “most severe drought” the country has ever experienced, which has so sapped rivers — including the Loire, the Doubs, the Dordogne, and the Garonne — that lots of of municipalities now require that drinking water be delivered by truck.

“This yr is phenomenal by way of [the drought’s] intensity and duration, and yet it’s the brand new normal,” says Karsten Rinke of Germany’s Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research (UFZ). “There’s an enormous water deficit in Europe’s landscape, which is barely getting worse every yr that it’s not replenished.” Rinke says that drought conditions in 4 of the past five years have sapped groundwater, further shrunk the glaciers that feed rivers, and transformed the landscape that has long nourished communities and ecosystems.

The Rhine is so low today that massive sand bars breach its midsection, stranding loaded barges.

“Perhaps most alarming this yr is the scope of the low water levels across your entire Danube basin, from Bavaria to the Black Sea,” says Thomas Hein of the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna. The basin covers greater than 800,000 square kilometers (300,000 square miles) and encompasses 19 countries — 10 percent of continental Europe. “Your complete river is affected, which implies we are able to’t just pump water from one section to a different to make up for the shortfall.”

On the Danube, the river is so low at Novi Sad, Serbia’s second largest city, that folks can wade across it — something even town’s oldest residents have never before witnessed. Whole wharfs and their vessels are stranded on dried riverbed, with never-before-seen islands now dotting the shallow waters. Farmers from the wealthy agricultural regions surrounding Novi Sad have requested that the federal government declare a state of emergency. And a grim symbol from the past has emerged: Dozens of sunken German World War II-era warships, some still harboring live ammunition, are actually visible within the diminshed river.

The drought is taking an enormous toll on commerce: Europe’s waterways transport about one ton of freight a yr for each EU resident and contribute, by way of transportation alone, roughly $80 billion to the economy. The Rhine is so emaciated today that massive sand bars breach its midsection, rendering fully loaded barges unable to move coal, diesel, and commodities to the economic cities of Germany’s Ruhr Valley.

The dried-up riverbed of the Danube near Zimnicea, Romania on August 9, 2022.

The dried-up riverbed of the Danube near Zimnicea, Romania on August 9, 2022.
Andrei Pungovschi / Bloomberg via Getty Images

The coal and fuel that travel the Rhine and other rivers are particularly vital now in light of Russia’s embargoes on gas and coal. And the outages at France’s nuclear power plants as a result of an absence of cooling water have contributed to the soaring price of French electricity, which has shot as much as the unheard-of 900 euros per megawatt-hour – greater than 10 times last yr’s price.

Scientists say that the economic cost of the rivers’ decimation is barely a part of the issue. The less water within the water system as an entire, explains Gabriel Singer, an ecologist at University of Innsbruck, Austria, the less dilution for salts and the slower a river flows. This results in higher saline content and better water temperatures, which will be lethal for a lot of species of riverine life, comparable to Danube salmon, barbel, and European grayling, amongst many others.

Higher temperatures also feed algae blooms, Singer explains, which will be toxic for river systems. That is what has happened in several German rivers, including the Moselle and Neckar, in addition to perhaps the Oder River, where in mid-August greater than 100 metric tons (220,000 kilos) of dead fish — amongst them perch, catfish, pike, and asp — washed up on its shores inside per week. (Experts are currently investigating the reason behind the die off.)

Scientists indicate that while the predicament of the good rivers of Europe has grabbed the headlines, it’s the smaller rivers that suffer disproportionately. “So a lot of them are completely dried up, not a drop of water left,” says Rinke. “When this happens they lose their entire community of biodiversity, perpetually. It won’t just return the subsequent time it rains.”

Governments need to deal with other aspects stressing Europe’s waterways, including stronger wetlands protections.

Scientists say that millennia of engineering and human activity along Europe’s rivers have also played a job. The straightening of once-wild rivers, deforestation, damming, industrial pollution, wastewater discharges, and agriculture’s usurpation of shorelines and wetlands has made Europe’s rivers all of the more liable to heat waves and low-water conditions, in addition to floods.

“All of our river systems are highly fragmented and vulnerable,” says Singer, underscoring that while the lower Danube is tormented by drought, the upper Danube in Germany and Austria will be vulnerable to flooding, as happened so spectacularly last July within the Rhine borderlands of Germany and Belgium. The underlying problem, he says, is actually the identical: the lack of highly modified rivers and river basins to carry water for longer periods of time. “Healthy natural ecosystems function as a sponge that provides and takes water, but ours have lost this ability,” he says.

Christian Griebler, a limnologist on the University of Vienna, explains: “We lose high amounts of water because rain cannot infiltrate sealed surfaces, and heavy rain after a drought doesn’t infiltrate dry soils. Surface overflow goes into channelized and fast-flowing rivers that hardly communicate with the encircling aquifers.”

Thus, the authorities’ reflex response — namely to dredge deeper — doesn’t address the essential problem, say Singer and Griebler. The truth is, it exacerbates it.

Low water levels on the Rhine River in Cologne, Germany on July 16, 2022.

Low water levels on the Rhine River in Cologne, Germany on July 16, 2022.
Ying Tang / NurPhoto via Getty Images

Solving the crisis unfolding this summer along Europe’s rivers will after all involve the long-term endeavor of slowing global warming. Within the short term, scientists say governments need to deal with other aspects stressing the continent’s waterways, including enforcing stronger wetland protections.

On that front, some progress is being made, says Singer. Last yr, UNESCO established the world’s first five-country biosphere reserve along the Mura, Drava, and Danube rivers — a complete area of just about 1 million hectares (3,860 square miles).

The Danube Delta, Europe’s largest wetland, has enjoyed such protection since 1998. However the delta’s special status has not spared it from the acute weather. Freshwater springs within the Delta’s Letea Forest went dry in August, endangering the lives of Romania’s famed wild horses. Officials bulldozed the mud-caked springs, enabling water to flow again and the horses to drink.

“Fortunately we still have the glaciers that act as a reserve for the larger rivers in times of lower precipitation,” says Hein. “But climate change modelers say they’ll be gone in 30 years. This is incredibly worrisome.”

Robert Lichtner, the Vienna-based coordinator of the European Union’s Strategy for the Danube Region, says that adaptation measures ultimately should be a part of the basin’s future. “We would like to slow these processes down, but [the extreme weather] shouldn’t be going away,” he says. “We’ll need to adapt and learn to live with it.”


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