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European drought dries up rivers and shrivels crops

A view of the dried-up river Tille in Lux, France (Nicholas Garriga/AP)
A view of the dried-up river Tille in Lux, France (Nicholas Garriga/AP)

An unprecedented drought is afflicting nearly half of the European continent and is damaging farm economies, forcing water restrictions and threatening aquatic species.

There has been no significant rainfall for almost two months in Western, Central and Southern Europe. And the dry period is expected to continue in what experts say could be the worst drought in 500 years.

Climate change is exacerbating conditions as hotter temperatures speed up evaporation, thirsty plants take in more moisture and reduced snowfall in the winter limits supplies of fresh water available for irrigation in the summer.

Europe is not alone in the crisis, with drought conditions also reported in East Africa, the western United States and northern Mexico.

As he walked in the 15m-wide (50ft-wide) riverbed in the village of Lux, eastern France, Jean-Philippe Couasne, chief technician at the local Federation for Fishing and Protection of the Aquatic Environment, listed the species of fish that had died in the Tille.

“It’s heartbreaking,” he said. “On average, about 8,000 litres per second are flowing. … And now, zero litres.”

Europe Drought
The sun beats down on the dried-up bed of the river Tille in Lux, France (Nicholas Garriga/AP)

In some areas upstream, some of the trout and other freshwater species are able to take shelter in pools via fish ladders. But such systems are not available everywhere.

Without rain, the river “will continue to empty. And yes, all fish will die. … They are trapped upstream and downstream, there’s no water coming in, so the oxygen level will keep decreasing as the (water) volume will go down,” Mr Couasne said. “These are species that will gradually disappear.”

Jean-Pierre Sonvico, the regional head of the federation, said diverting the fish to other rivers will not help because those waterways also are affected, which will lead to overcrowding and more deaths.

“Yes, it’s dramatic because what can we do? Nothing,” he said. “We’re waiting, hoping for storms with rain, but storms are very local so we can’t count on it.”

The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre warned this week that drought conditions will get worse and potentially affect 47% of the continent.

Andrea Toreti, a senior researcher at the European Drought Observatory, said a drought in 2018 was so extreme that there were no similar events for the last 500 years, “but this year, I think, it is really worse”.

The current situation is the result of long periods of dry weather caused by changes in world weather systems, said meteorologist Peter Hoffmann of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research near Berlin.

“It’s just that in summer we feel it the most,” he said. “But actually the drought builds up across the year.”

Germany Heat
A transport vessel passes the Rheinturm (Rhine Tower) in Duesseldorf, Germany, as river levels continue to fall (Christoph Reichwein/dpa via AP)

Climate change has lessened the temperature differences between regions, sapping the forces that drive the jet stream, which normally brings wet Atlantic weather to Europe, he said.

A weaker or unstable jet stream can result in unusually hot air coming to Europe from North Africa, leading to prolonged periods of heat. The reverse is also true, when a polar vortex of cold air from the Arctic can cause freezing conditions far south of where it would normally reach.

The drought has caused some European countries to impose restrictions on water usage, and shipping is endangered on the Rhine and the Danube.

The Rhine, Germany’s biggest waterway, could reach critical low levels in the coming days. Water levels near the town of Kaub are forecast to fall to 35cm (14in) by Tuesday, said Bastian Klein of the German Federal Institute of Hydrology.

Only small or specially designed ships can navigate in such conditions, he said.

“Industries that depend on inland shipping and transport on the Rhine are of course affected, as there’s less transport capacity for raw materials or finished products,” said Mr Klein.

On the Danube, authorities in Serbia have started dredging sand to deepen the waterway and keep vessels moving smoothly.

In neighbouring Hungary, wide parts of popular Lake Velence near Budapest, have turned into patches of dried mud, beaching small boats.

Aeration and water circulation equipment have been installed to protect wildlife, but water quality has deteriorated to the point that a ban on swimming was imposed at one beach on weekends.

Stretches of the Po, Italy’s longest river, are so low that barges and boats that sank decades ago are resurfacing.

The drought also has affected southern England, which received only 10% of its average rainfall in July. Firefighters are battling an unprecedented number of grass fires and people in several areas have been banned from watering their lawns.

AP Week in Pictures, Europe and Africa
A motorcycle drives through the lavender fields of Valensole during a hot day in southern France (Daniel Cole/AP)

The Rivers Trust charity said England’s chalk streams — which allow underground springs to bubble up through the spongy layer of rock — are drying up, endangering aquatic wildlife like kingfishers and trout.

Even in countries like Spain and Portugal, which are used to long periods without rain, there have been major consequences.

In the Spanish region of Andalucia, some avocado farmers have had to sacrifice hundreds of trees to save others from wilting as the Vinuela reservoir in Malaga province dropped to only 13% of capacity, down 55% from a year ago.

Some European farmers are using water from the tap for their livestock in areas where ponds and streams have gone dry, using up to 100 litres a day per cow.

In normally green Burgundy, home to the source of Paris’ Seine River, the grass has turned yellow-brown and tractors churn up giant clouds of dust.

Baptiste Colson, who owns dairy cows and grows feed crops in the village of Moloy, said his animals are suffering in the drought, with the quality and quantity of the milk decreasing.

The 31-year-old head of the local Jeunes Agriculteurs (Young Farmers) union said he has been forced to dip into his winter supply of fodder in August.

“That is the biggest concern,” Mr Colson said.