Evaporation from Europe’s rivers is wreaking havoc on food and energy production

France’s Loire is at its lowest level as Europe experiences what is thought to be its worst drought in at least 500 years.

Guillaume Souvant | AFP | Getty Images

European rivers are drying up after a long spell of extremely hot weather, raising fears over food and energy production at a time when prices are already skyrocketing due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine .

A severe lack of rainfall and a streak of heat waves beginning in May have wreaked visible havoc on the region’s waterways.

In France, it has become possible to cross the Loire on foot in certain places; there are fears that water levels at a key German choke point on the Rhine, one of Europe’s main waterways, could once again be closed to commercial traffic; and the drought-stricken waters of Italy’s Po River have revealed artefacts dating back to World War II, including a 50-meter-long barge and a previously submerged bomb.

“We haven’t seen this level of drought in a very long time. Water levels in some of the major waterways are lower than they have been in decades,” said Matthew Oxenford, senior analyst at Europe and Climate Policy at The Economist Intelligence Unit. , a research and consulting firm, told CNBC over the phone.

The wreckage of a German World War II warship is seen in the Danube in Prahovo, Serbia, August 18, 2022.

Fedja Grulovic | Reuters

“For some of the main channels there is very little leeway, sometimes less than 30 centimeters before the channel is completely unusable for any type of navigation,” he added.

“So that’s going to have very significant impacts on the economic and human activity that’s going on around those waterways, because we’re likely going to be in some form of drought for quite some time.”

The worst drought for 500 years

Europe is in the grip of what will likely be the region’s worst drought in at least 500 years, according to a preliminary analysis by the European Union’s Joint Research Centre.

In early August, the report from the Global Drought Observatory said around two-thirds of Europe was under some sort of drought warning, meaning the ground has dried up and vegetation “shows signs of stress”.

The analysis found that nearly all of Europe’s rivers have dried up to some degree, while water and heat stress “significantly reduced” summer crop yields. Forecasts for grain corn, soybeans and sunflower were expected to be 16%, 15% and 12% lower respectively than the average for the previous five years.

It comes as food prices remain stubbornly high in the face of Russia’s assault on Ukraine, a major producer of raw materials such as wheat, corn and sunflower oil.

If you grow up in Central Europe, people usually like the sun, but now we hope for rain.

Axel Bronstert

Professor of Hydrology and Climatology at the University of Potsdam

The EU report warned that the Western Europe-Mediterranean region is likely to see hotter and drier than usual conditions persist until November.

Certainly, the worsening climate emergency has made high temperatures and droughts more intense and widespread. And the lower nighttime temperatures that typically provide critical relief from hot days are disappearing as the planet warms.

“The problem is the severity of this particular drought,” Axel Bronstert, a professor of hydrology and climatology at the University of Potsdam in Germany, told CNBC by phone.

“If you grow up in central Europe, people usually like the sun – but now we hope it will rain,” Bronstert said, noting that it was previously unknown that some small rivers in the region would completely dry up at this time. of the year. .

“Without really heavy rainfall in the next few weeks, the likelihood of water levels dropping further is high,” he added.

Along with the ecological and health impacts of the drought, Bronstert said the drought conditions had resulted in a “very poor” harvest for many different crops in Germany.

In Italy’s Po Valley, home to around 30% of the country’s agricultural production, scorching heat and exceptionally dry conditions have hurt corn and sunflower production.

Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Soaring food and energy prices fueled a sharp rise in inflation, with consumer prices in the 19 countries using the euro hitting a new high of 9.1% in August.

“I think the most important point I want to make is that anomalies like this are going to kind of become more common over the next few years due to climate change,” Oxenford of the EIU said, citing the possibility of more intense droughts, storms, heat waves and floods in Europe.

“So I think the conclusion to deal with the economic impact of all of this is that countries are going to have to invest more in preparing for things that used to be very rare – but are now going to be much more common occurrences in as climate change disrupts many patterns of activity that have been built up over centuries.”

Race for the security of energy supplies

Oxenford said the economic impact of evaporating European waterways was likely to be “multifaceted”, highlighting the prospect of a halt to shipping along the Rhine as one of the major risks.

Spanning approximately 820 miles (1,320 kilometres), the Rhine is one of Europe’s longest and most important rivers. It connects the main port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands through the industrial heartland of Germany and further south into landlocked Switzerland.

Water levels in the German Rhine have stabilized above crisis levels in recent weeks. However, forecasts of a long period of high temperatures and low rainfall have heightened fears that the transport of everything from food to chemicals to energy could soon come to a halt.

Water levels at Kaub – a measuring station west of Frankfurt and a key choke point for water freight – are expected to drop to 86 centimeters (about 34 inches) by the end of week, according to German government data. A normal water level would be around the 200 centimeter mark.

In 2018, water levels on the Rhine dropped to just 30 centimeters in places, forcing ships to temporarily stop transporting goods.

An unloaded inland barge moves along the low water level Rhine River in Duisburg, western Germany, August 9, 2022.

Ina Fasbender | AFP | Getty Images

Andrew Kenningham, chief economist for Europe at consultancy Capital Economics, said in a research note that if lower Rhine water levels persist, it could subtract 0.2 percentage points from gross domestic product. of Germany in the third and fourth quarters of this year.

Kenningham, however, said the falling water level of the Rhine was a relatively minor issue for German industry compared to the worsening gas crisis in the region.

Elsewhere, warming temperatures in French rivers have threatened in recent weeks to cut the country’s already weak nuclear output. Summer heat waves have further warmed rivers like the Rhône and the Garonne which public energy supplier EDF uses to cool the reactors of its nuclear power plants.

France’s nuclear energy regulator has since extended temporary waivers to allow five power stations to continue discharging hot water into rivers ahead of an impending energy crisis, Reuters reported.

And, in Norway, a northern European country that relies heavily on hydroelectric power, the lack of rain has led to a steep drop in the amount of electricity produced by dams. As a result, the Norwegian government announced in early August that it planned to limit electricity exports.

European governments are scrambling to fill underground gas storage facilities in order to have enough fuel to keep homes warm for months to come.

Russia – which supplied around 40% of the EU’s gas last year – has dramatically reduced flows to Europe in recent weeks, citing faulty and delayed equipment.

– CNBC’s Emma Newburger contributed to this report.

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