Europe’s water and food security are under threat as winter droughts dry up rivers and farms

The exposed lake bed at the Montbel reservoir in France – Matthieu Rondel/Bloomberg

An unprecedented winter drought across Europe has sparked dramatic scenes across the continent and warnings of threats to food, water security and even energy production.

In Italy, dry streams and withered crops drive thirsty wild boar into cities in search of food and water.

The wild boar are so ubiquitous today that people coming out of supermarkets have been “ambushed” by herds of wild boar trying to snatch their purchases, causing a road accident every two days, according to the Coldiretti farmers’ association.

Europe has been in a severe drought since 2018, which has led to steeply low groundwater levels, according to a study by Graz University of Technology published in January.

The compounding effects of consecutive droughts are prompting warnings this summer could be worse than last year, when the continent experienced its worst drought in 500 years.

A map from the European Drought Observatory shows that most of France and Britain are soil moisture deficits. Much of Ireland is red, indicating a threat to vegetation growth.

A lake in Besse-sur-Issole, France has almost completely dried up - ERIC GAILLARD/REUTERS

A lake in Besse-sur-Issole, France has almost completely dried up – ERIC GAILLARD/REUTERS

“Given the current situation and considering the long-term effects of the 2022 drought, there is a high risk of yield losses if there is insufficient rainfall in the coming weeks, along with impacts on energy production, river transport and ecosystems,” said Andrea Toreti, Senior Researcher at the Joint Research Center of the European Commission.

Governments are responding with water restrictions and Italy has warned rationing may be needed to protect food production.

The Alps received half their normal snowfall this winter, while the country’s longest river, the Po, carries 60 percent less water than normal at this time of year, according to environmental group Legambiente.

Lake Garda is at its lowest level in 30 years and San Bagio Island is now within walking distance. Dry rivers also contribute to the wild boar problem, making it easier for them to move into urban areas.

People walk along San Bagio Island - ALEX FRASER/REUTERS

People walk along San Bagio Island – ALEX FRASER/REUTERS

Coldiretti, the farmers’ association, says 300,000 farms have been affected by the drought.

According to climate expert Massimiliano Pasqui from the National Research Council, a scientific institute, Italy needs at least 50 days of rain.

“We are in a water shortage situation that has been building up since the winter of 2020-2021,” he said.

In Spain, where reservoirs operate at a national average of 50 percent, farmers are struggling to sustain production due to irrigation restrictions.

Catalonia has introduced a hosepipe ban, cutting the amount of water available for agriculture by 40 percent.

“This could be the new normal; we will have to learn to live with droughts like this,” said Teresa Jordà, Catalonia’s Minister for Climate Action, Food and Rural Affairs.

In the southeast, one of the continent’s largest fruit and vegetable-growing areas, lack of rain has reduced production of tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants and peppers by more than 20 percent this winter.

The shortage is affecting UK supermarket shelves, with some rationing the number of salad items customers can buy.

Empty fruit and veg shelves at an Asda in east London - Yui Mok/PA

Empty fruit and veg shelves at an Asda in east London – Yui Mok/PA

The Spanish government has introduced changes to the way water is channeled from the central plains towards the southeast, meaning the irrigation-hungry region is facing a drop in resources, driving up food prices as the production is pressed.

“We will plant 25 percent fewer hectares of melons and watermelons this summer and we are not sure how the remaining 75 percent will come out,” replied Juan Francisco Abellaneda, from grower group Deilor in Murcia, of the cut in irrigation water.

In France, which is experiencing its driest winter since 1959, five departments have restricted water for both agricultural and domestic use.

Residents are banned from watering their gardens, washing their cars and filling their swimming pools after the country went 32 straight days without rain.

Bridge and sandbanks of the Loire in Montjean-sur-Loire, France - STEPHANE MAHE/REUTERS

Bridge and sandbanks of the Loire in Montjean-sur-Loire, France – STEPHANE MAHE/REUTERS

Worse could be in store for the country, with warnings that hydro and nuclear power, which rely on rivers for cooling, could be curtailed in the coming months. This could have implications for energy security in the UK, which imports electricity from the continent.

According to Sonia Seneviratne, Professor at the Institute for Atmosphere and Climate at ETH Zurich, a lack of winter rain is not necessarily a typical consequence of global warming. But the consequences of an abnormal dry spell in winter are much more significant because of increasingly dry summers.

“But now in the context of the current climate, because we have this greater risk of drought in the spring and summer, it’s actually a lot more risky to have those conditions in the winter than in the past.”

Last year, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that Europe was failing to plan for the impacts of climate change.

Emmanuel Macron, the French President, is among those who are now calling for a change in attitudes towards water use.

“We will have a plan for the drought, we need to use our water better, with less waste,” he said. “It is the end of abundance. We have to switch to sober behavior.”

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