European drought taking heavy toll on crops and shipping as costs soar

Water being limited in Spain’s southern region of Andalucía, which grows much of Europe’s fruits and vegetables

With soaring temperatures, blue skies and not a hint of rain, summer 2022 in half of continental Europe has officially tipped into drought.

Water levels in major rivers — from Germany’s Rhine to Italy’s Po — have dropped to record levels, exposing wartime munitions, closing shipping routes and endangering harvests.

With wildfires raging for weeks across France, Spain, Italy and Portugal, the effects of climate change are gathering pace on Swiss mountain glaciers, which are melting at record levels to expose aircraft wreckage and the bodies of climbers lost half a century ago.

Based on 10-day data from the end of July, the European Drought Observatory said 45 per cent of mainland Europe is now classified as drought warning areas, with a marked deficit of moisture in the soil, while 15 per cent is under the more severe level of “alert”, where vegetation is stressed.


Copernicus, the EU’s climate monitoring agency, has published separate data showing much of Europe experienced a drier-than-average July, with “staggering” drought levels, particularly in southern Europe.

The report’s authors warned that, after a dry spring, the severe — visible — drop in river water levels in the summer had serious knock-on effects. They warn of “severe impacts on the energy sector both for hydropower generation and for cooling systems of other power plants”.

The heatwave meant Italy’s mortality rate jumped 21 per cent last month with 733 deaths, while experts carried out a controlled explosion at the weekend on a 450kg bomb exposed by retreating waters of the River Po.

Harvest failures

While Tuscan olive farmers race to save what they can of their harvest, many northern rice fields — filled with arborio variety used in risotto — lie scorched and barren.

Harvest failures mean a rise in prices, not just for Italian rice, according to the EU science service, but a 10 per cent price hike likely for grain maize, sunflowers and soybeans.

As well as crop shortfalls the drought means the river Rhine, one of Europe’s most important shipping waterways, is so empty that at points water levels are just 10-30cm deep.

Barges are passing with just a third of their usual load — tripling the cost and causing supply back-ups all down the river for car companies, chemical plants and steel factories.

“The use of the Rhine is limited because of low water levels,” said Jörg Belz of the German Hydrology Institute. “All those who transport goods and services by the waterways have lower supply possibilities.”

With just 9.7mm rainfall, France had its driest July on record, down 85 per cent on the average in the last 30 years. Many villages have been left without safe drinking water while farmers have warned of a looming milk shortage and a corn harvest down nearly a fifth on last year.

Now facing into its fourth heatwave of the summer, French prime minister Elisabeth Borne has set up a crisis team to cope with the drought and its effects.

Spain reported its hottest July in 60 years and, with some reservoirs down to 40 per cent capacity, water rationing is spreading. Madrid has called for a rethink of whether it is sustainable for Spain to use 80 per cent of its water to irrigate crops. Already authorities are limiting water supplies in the southern region of Andalucía, which grows much of Europe’s fruits and vegetables.

“We cannot be Europe’s vegetable garden with water shortages for residents,” said Julia Martínez, biologist and director of the FNCA Water Conservation Foundation.

The European Drought Observatory says there is little hope of change in the coming weeks. “If confirmed,” it warns, “this will exacerbate drought severity and the impacts on agriculture, energy and water supply”.

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin