In recent years, Europe has been beset by multiple crises, including the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. In addition to the impact of these crises on Europe’s ability to develop and maintain stability, the continent is about to face another significant crisis: the water crisis, which not only poses a threat to the continent’s ability to maintain political and economic stability but also to life itself.
In tandem with these crises, the word “drought” has become commonplace on European lips and ears as the continent has become a ball of flame, recording unprecedentedly high temperatures that have not been seen in over 500 years. This unprecedented drought resulted in a drop in water levels in the continent’s major rivers and the transformation of green spaces into arid areas.
According to the Joint Research Center (JRC) of the European Commission, the severity of the situation is expected to worsen as drought affects about 47 percent of Europe. Furthermore, two-thirds of Europe’s landmass is in danger from drought, knowing that 15 percent of Europe’s landmass was considered to be in “severe drought” as of July of last year.
In light of this severe climate, scientists’ interpretations regarding the origins of this crisis differed. Different scientists came to different conclusions about what had brought about the current climate crisis. Some have linked this to climate change, which they say has increased global temperatures to record highs and reduced snowfall during the winter and soil fertility, all of which increase plant water use. Others, who concentrated more on Europe, explained the crisis by a shift in air currents that brought hot air from North Africa to Europe, as reported in a Nature study.
Despite the gravity of the problem, it may get worse as a result of Europe’s recent retreat from its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 55 percent by 2030 in response to the effects of the Russian-Ukrainian war. As a result of the energy crisis that the Ukraine conflict triggered, European governments have turned back to using coal and fossil fuels.
According to a study by several European economists, the drought crisis and water scarcity will have a negative impact on Europe’s gross domestic product, which will see a 0.5 percent decline from the previous decade. Therefore, European authorities in various countries, most notably France, have stepped up their efforts over the past two years in particular to contain the fallout from the ongoing drought crisis.
Europe’s Water Situation
We will examine the water situation in Europe by focusing on France, Italy, and Spain, the countries most affected by the water crisis and its scarcity, given that they are home to Europe’s largest agricultural powers and supply the European market with a wide variety of vegetables and fruits. Due to the lack of rain this winter, these countries were adversely impacted, which caused a significant decline in their water reserves.
France experienced its driest winter in 60 years, with more than 30 consecutive days without precipitation from January to February. According to a report by the Court of Audit, the amount of renewable water that is currently available and can be used to meet human needs without compromising the situation in the future decreased by 14 percent between the time periods of 1990-2001 and 2002-2018, from 229 bcm to 197 bcm. The gravity of France’s situation is exemplified by the extensive damage to its agricultural lands on the one hand and the dependence of dozens of French nuclear reactors on river water for cooling on the other, not to mention the lack of water in these rivers or its extreme heat, especially the temperature of the Rhone and Garonne rivers’ waters, to the point that it becomes impossible to use these waters to cool the reactors.
According to Christophe Béchu, Minister for the Ecological Transition and Territorial Cohesion, the crisis has left more than a hundred French towns without access to clean drinking water. Béchu referred to the current drought in France and other European countries as “historic”. He confirmed that more than one hundred French municipalities lack running water and are supplied with water by truck. Due to the lack of water in the canals, the government is placing its bets on tighter limitations and controls on water use.
This could be seen in the fact that 93 of France’s 96 regions were subject to varying degrees of water consumption restrictions, such as limiting the amount of drinking water used. The government declared that a daily per capita consumption of 150 liters of potable water (estimated for 2020) is unsustainable and that households and businesses must reduce their consumption. Controversy arose in France as a result of laws that prohibit citizens from extracting artesian water in the southern regions, despite the fact that some housing units are without water. The Ministry of War, for its part, declared that it would reduce water use by 10 percent before the decade was out and would set aside €429 million for that purpose.
The situation is equally dire in Italy, where snowfall dropped by 64 percent from April 2018 to April 2023. This was reflected in the Po River’s water level dropping to summer levels and the depletion of about half of Lake Garda’s reserves, the country’s largest lake. The largest river in the country, the River Po, has seen its water level significantly decline to the point where it has seriously damaged the rice fields, and the river’s water level is continuing to recede. The Italian Journal magazine reported that the river is flowing at a rate that is 25 percent lower than the historically lowest level ever observed in April. In the southern region of Lombardy, water reserves were only 58.4 percent of their historical average and 12.55 percentage points lower than in 2022. Ettore Prandini of the Coldiretti [the Italian Direct Farmers Association], noted that “with warming, the precipitation rate has decreased by a third”, meaning that rainwater, which accounts for 89.0 percent of all available water, is becoming scarcer. This situation threatens the viability of land, food production, and the entire food sector’s competitiveness. A staggering €13 billion in economic losses result from this drought. In Italy, the price of tomatoes has increased by 30 percent compared to the previous year.
In Spain, the alarm is sounding as the country deals with the effects of drought for the second year in a row. Drought has affected about 60 percent of Spanish fields, leading to a rise in food prices of about 46 percent. In addition, the country is experiencing irreversible losses of more than 3.5 million hectares (8,600,000 acres) of cereal cropland. According to local farmers’ organizations, walnut groves and vineyards have been affected, particularly in Andalusia, Castile-La Mancha, Extremadura, and Murcia.
Alpine Waters Set Off Conflicts in Europe
An ongoing conflict has emerged in Europe over the Alps’ water supply as a result of the continent’s current water shortage. The amount of snow in the Alps has decreased to its lowest level in recent memory and there has been a decrease in ice caps and the European ice sheet, the latter of which serves as the primary nutrient for the groundwater reserves and aquifers in France, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, and Slovenia, as well as a supply for the Rhine, Danube, Rhone, and Po rivers.
In consequence, a water crisis arose in Europe’s river transport. According to Eurostat data, Europe suffers enormous losses exceeding tens of billions of euros due to the paralysis of European river transport, which was contributing about $80 billion to the region’s economy. These losses are caused by the levels of drought recorded by various important rivers for transportation, such as the Rhine and Po rivers, which are no longer navigable. Interestingly, this is not the first time the transportation industry has experienced a major crisis. Only four years have passed since the Rhine River experienced a similar disruption to transportation in 2018. Back then, the European Union came under increasing pressure to support the transport industries, and at the moment, additional countries are doing the same, with pressure that is becoming more intense as the crisis worsens.
The European Union’s JRC has declared that the state of water reserves and aquifers in northern Italy, France, and Spain raises concerns about water supplies for human use, agriculture, and energy production, further inflaming tensions between the aforementioned countries, especially France, Italy, and Switzerland. France and Italy desperately need water to irrigate their crops. Regarding Switzerland, the country’s need for water is correlated with the amount of electricity it produces, with Alpine water accounting for two-thirds of this total output. Kaspar Schuler, the head of the International Committee for the Protection of the Alps (CIPRA), emphasized the gravity of the situation, saying that “the current situation is concerning because the Alps have supplied water to tens of millions of people for centuries, but the future is uncertain due to the drought and the dispute between European nations over water.”
Risk to the European Economy
The water crisis has an impact on the economic outlook. Predictions do not just assume the continuation of the current unfavorable situation; they also assert that there is a very high likelihood of a significant worsening, as well as a very high likelihood of a significant loss of up to $5 billion, which will be primarily brought on by the current unfavorable situation, which is worsening in the flow of River transport trade. According to economist Jan Swart, this situation forces European countries to seek out more expensive alternatives, which raises freight rates daily by about 30 percent. A worsening of the situation would undermine the European strategy, which intended to use a 25 percent increase in waterway transport by 2030 as a foundation for its efforts to combat climate change and lower greenhouse gas emissions.
Germany was the most affected country by the impeded river transport movement. A major obstacle to the German government’s plan to restart power plants was the difficulty of transporting coal via river. The shutdown of half of France’s nuclear reactors for the aforementioned reasons, as well as a significant delay in performing the necessary maintenance work, has rendered France incapable of meeting the potential demand for electricity in European countries. The French’s inability had an impact on Norway, which came up with a plan to cut back on electricity exports to cut back on gas consumption and provide reserves.
The risks associated with the escalation of the water scarcity issue extend beyond the economy to include the uneven distribution of water resources across Europe. The crisis is further exacerbated by tourism, which increases the demand for water and contributes to desertification and the invasion of salt water into some coastal freshwater aquifers. Although it is most noticeable in southern European countries, water scarcity also exists in other EU member states.
The convergence of European and African droughts in the migration file is an important point that opens a new horizon for discussing this crisis from a European-African perspective. In this regard, the first global report on the effects of water scarcity on migration, titled Ebb and Flow, was published. It was based on analysis of the largest data set on internal migration ever assembled, covering nearly half a billion people from 189 population censuses in 64 countries and examined the conditions in the Middle East and North Africa, where 60 percent of the population lives in water-scarce areas. According to the research’s findings, the region’s population, particularly those who have been displaced by conflict and their host communities, is particularly vulnerable to water shortages.
In a separate paper, we will address the close relationship between the water crisis and African migration to Europe.s