In places, the Loire is now crossed on foot; The longest river in France has never flowed so slowly. The Rhine quickly becomes impassable to barge traffic. In Italy, the Po is 2 meters lower than normal, which paralyzes crops. Serbia dredges the Danube.
Across Europe, drought is wiping out once mighty rivers, with potentially dramatic consequences for industry, freight, energy and food production – as are supply shortages and rising prices due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine bite.
Due to the deteriorating climate, an unusually dry winter and spring followed by record summer temperatures and repeated heat waves have left Europe’s vital waterways under-replenished and increasingly overheated.
With no significant rainfall recorded for nearly two months in western, central and southern Europe and no forecast for the near future, meteorologists say the drought could become the continent’s worst in more than 500 years.
“We haven’t fully analyzed this year’s event as it is still ongoing,” said Andrea Toreti of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre. “There have been no other events in the past 500 [years] similar to the drought of 2018. But this year I think is worse.
He said there was “a very high risk of dry conditions” over the next three months, adding that without effective mitigation, the intensity and frequency of drought “would increase significantly in Europe, both in the north and ‘South”.
The German Federal Institute of Hydrology (BfG) said the level of the Rhine, whose waters are used for freight transport, irrigation, manufacturing, power generation and consumption, will continue to fall in the future. least until early next week.
On Friday, water at the critical Kaub marker 50km downstream of Mainz – which measures navigability rather than water depth – fell below 40cm, the level at which many transport companies consider that it is no longer economical for the barges to operate. It could fall closer to 30cm over the next few days, the BfG said.
Many barges, which transport coal for power stations and vital raw materials for industrial giants such as steelmaker Thyssen and chemicals giant BASF, are already operating at around 25% capacity to reduce their draft , which multiplies the shipping costs by five times.
A vital part of the economy of northwestern Europe for centuries, the 760 miles (1,233 km) of the Rhine flows from Switzerland through the industrial heartland of Germany before reaching the North Sea at the Rotterdam megaport.
A total halt to Rhine barge traffic would hit the German – and European – economy hard: experts have calculated that a six-month suspension in 2018 would cost around 5 billion euros (£4.2 billion), the low water levels expected to cost Germany 0.2 points of economic loss. growth this year.
While the EU has said a 25% increase in waterborne freight is one of the priorities of the bloc’s green transition, Germany is now pushing to divert it to rail and road – although that between 40 and 100 trucks are needed to replace a standard barge load.
France’s rivers may not be such important freight arteries, but they serve to cool the nuclear power plants that produce 70% of the country’s electricity. As prices hit historic highs, electricity giant EDF was forced to cut output due to drought.
Strict rules govern how much nuclear power plants can raise the temperature of rivers when they discharge cooling water – and whether low water levels and high air temperatures mean the river is already overheated , they have no choice but to reduce their production. As Europe’s looming energy crisis escalates and the Garonne, Rhône and Loire rivers are already too hot to discharge cooling water, France’s nuclear regulator last week allowed five power plants to temporarily breach rules.
In Italy, the flow of the desiccated Po, Italy’s longest river, has fallen to a tenth of its usual flow, and water levels are 2 meters lower than normal. With no sustained rainfall in the region since November, maize and risotto rice production has been hit hard.
The Po Valley accounts for between 30% and 40% of Italy’s agricultural production, but rice farmers in particular have warned that up to 60% of their harvest could be lost as the paddies dry up and are marred by the rain. sea water sucked in by the lower course of the river. level.
In the protected wetlands of the river’s delta near Venice, its high temperature and slow flow have reduced the oxygen content of the water to the point that around 30% of the clams growing in the lagoon have already been killed.
Low river levels and high water temperatures can prove fatal to many species. In Bavaria, the Danube reached 25°C last week and could hit 26.5°C by the middle of the month, meaning its oxygen content would drop below six parts per million – deadly for trout .
Freight on the 2,850 km of the Danube has also been severely disrupted, prompting authorities in Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria to start dredging deeper canals while barges carrying mainly fuel for electricity generators wait to arrive. ‘to advance.
Even Norway, which depends on hydroelectricity for about 90% of its power generation, said unusually low reservoir levels could eventually force it to limit power exports.