Europe is running out of water just as spring is beginning.
A vital reservoir that supplies millions of Catalans is running out. Fighting was brought on by a water dispute in France, where a number of villages are no longer able to supply their citizens with tap water. And the biggest river in Italy is already running at levels similar to last June.
As of April, more than a quarter of the Continent was experiencing drought, and many nations are preparing for a repetition of last year's brutally dry summer, or worse.
Earlier this year, a study using satellite data found that Europe has been experiencing severe drought since 2018. It is becoming more difficult to make up for this deficit due to rising temperatures, trapping the Continent in a cycle where the availability of water grows increasingly problematic.
According to principal author of the satellite study Torsten Mayer-Gürr, "a few years ago I would have said we have enough water in Europe. Now it looks like we could face problems."
Even a rainy spring won't be able to solve Europe's persistent groundwater deficit, experts caution, despite the fact that wet weather in the upcoming weeks may benefit agriculture and replenish topsoils.
Governments are currently rushing to address both existing and potential shortages as the summer approaches, all the while managing the tensions brought on by the growing rivalry for water.
The drought, according to last week's statement by Pedro Sánchez, the prime minister of Spain, "is going to be one of the central political and territorial debates of our country over the coming years."
The severe drought of last year reduced both the surface and underground reservoirs in Europe.
Winter was meant to provide relief. But little rain or snow fell in many of the worst-affected areas of the Continent.
France had its driest winter in 60 years, with no rain falling for more than 30 straight days in both January and February.
The CIMA research foundation in Italy discovered a 64% decrease in snowfall by mid-April. Lake Garda is already at less than half its usual level, while the river Po is running as low as it did last summer.
In four distinct regions, according to a report from the Spanish Farmers' Association COAG, some cereals must be "written off" this year; one meteorologist advised El Pas to "say goodbye to almost the entire olive harvest."
Authorities decided to remove fish from the Sau reservoir north of Barcelona because the water level had dropped so low that they may otherwise perish and contaminate the area's water supply. Only 27% of Catalonia's reservoirs are full as of April. Spain will experience a heat wave early next week.
Water availability in Spain, like that in France, might decrease by as much as 40% by 2050, according to Minister of Ecological Transition Teresa Ribera.
According to Fred Hattermann, a hydrologist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, winter precipitation is especially important for Mediterranean nations.
"If there's not a lot of precipitation now... then a drought is basically locked in," he continued, referring to this year's scant rainfall and low Alpine snow cover.
However, any spring rains would only help to lessen the summer's water stress.
"We would need almost a decade of precipitation-heavy years," Hattermann predicted, for Europe to escape the cycle of beginning each year with a significant groundwater shortage.
It can be difficult to forecast precipitation over such lengthy periods, especially if rainfall patterns are changing due to climate change. One of the few long-term forecasts, the German meteorological service's forecast for the 2020s, suggests that the nation will have less rainfall than usual throughout the majority of the decade.
But even if precipitation levels remain constant, climate change will make it harder to find water in large parts of Europe.
Water mismanagement and excessive use are just two of the numerous elements that can contribute to drought, which is a complicated problem. However, the burden on Europe's water supply will undoubtedly increase as temperatures rise.
According to Hattermann, there are three ways that global warming is causing the Continent to get drier. First, water will evaporate more quickly as temperatures rise.
It gets drier just from this, he said. "Basically, we would have to have a steady increase in precipitation to compensate for the increase in evaporation."
Second, when the European jet stream weakens due to climate change, air pressure systems may become trapped, leading to protracted hot and dry weather, as was the situation last year, or protracted heavy rainfall, as was the case during the devastating floods of 2021.
Finally, due to the rising temperatures, Europe's glaciers and snow cover are fast melting, depriving important rivers like the Rhine, the Danube, the Rhône, and the Po of essential water supplies.
The amount of meltwater entering Europe's water reservoirs this year "will be really much less than usual," according to Andrea Toreti, a senior researcher at the Joint Research Center of the European Commission. "Because 2023 has been worse than it was last year — and that was already the worst one, looking back at the last 10 years, and now it’s even worse."
Spain, southern Portugal, Italy, and France appear to be particularly vulnerable heading into this summer, according to Toreti.
"But Poland and other regions like Bulgaria, Romania, Greece are showing warning conditions for drought," he warned. The Nordic countries are under water stress, according to the European Drought Observatory.
Hattermann pointed out that despite recent above-average rainfall in Brandenburg, a German drought hotspot, groundwater levels are still lower than they were a year ago.
"Despite all the rain we had it’s not gotten better but worse," he claimed.
Europe is gradually becoming aware of the problem.
Capitals are frantically drafting answers to the current and anticipated shortages in light of last summer's disastrous consequences on sectors like agriculture, energy, and industry.
Italy adopted a drought directive earlier this month that cuts red tape for water infrastructure, including desalination plants. Spain released a fresh set of water management plans in January.
The new national water management policy announced by French President Emmanuel Macron aims to cut overall water consumption by 10% by the end of the decade. According to the plan, each sector would be invited to develop ideas for lowering their water usage.
The policy adopted by Germany in March comprises 78 actions to be taken by 2030 and initiatives to make water use "sustainable" in 10 locations by 2050.
However, critics contend that governments are not doing enough to address the widespread issue of inadequate resource management, which persists across the Continent and exacerbates the effects of declining water supplies. Industry estimates that a quarter of the drinking water in Europe is lost due to pipeline leaks.
Eleonora Evi, an Italian Green politician and former MEP, criticized her government's plan on Twitter for failing to address the cause of the nation's water crisis. She suggested that the government concentrate on reforestation and measures to prevent the loss of drinking water brought on by leaks.
According to Samantha Burgess, deputy director at Copernicus, the European climate observation program, "Obviously, water is a finite resource, and we as a society haven't perhaps been as effective as possible in managing this finite resource."
Meanwhile, across the Continent, controlling water and determining who has access to it are becoming political issues.
The prioritizing of water consumption for tourist infrastructure, major industrial projects, and agriculture came under scrutiny last summer as water use limitations were implemented in the UK, France, Spain and Italy.
While limitations were never eased in some municipalities, others currently face new ones. Recent restrictions in Catalonia include a requirement to cut water use for agriculture by 40%.
Over the past 20 years, the number of water-related legal challenges has risen in southern Germany. Furthermore, last month's violent clashes in France were the result of conflicts between farmers and environmentalists over the building of water reservoirs.
By extracting groundwater in the winter so that it can be used for irrigation in the summer, the reservoirs are intended to assist farmers deal with drier summer circumstances. However, environmental organizations argue that the sector should take steps to reduce its water use.
The president of the French Green Party, Marine Tondelier, referred to the reservoirs as "unfair" and "an appropriation and privatization of the water resource by a few to the expense of the majority."
Plans by the center-right People's Party and the far-right Vox to extend irrigation close to the UNESCO-protected Doana wetlands have outraged environmentalists and opposition parties in Spain's Andalusia province.
Earlier this month, Maribel Mora of the extreme-left Podemos party dumped a cup of sand upon the parliamentary chair of Andalusia's premier, claiming that if the contentious bill was implemented, Doana would resemble "a desert."
People can sense it, according to Hattermann. "The battle around distribution is already a little underway."
By fLEXI tEAM