A view of the drought that affected the Los Bermejales reservoir which is at 18% of its capacity in Arenas del Rey in Granada, Spain, on May 13, 2023.
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European policymakers are battling to get to grips with a growing water crisis ahead of what researchers fear could be yet another climate crisis-fueled summer of drought.
Water resources in Europe are growing increasingly scarce because of the deepening climate emergency, with record-breaking temperatures through spring and a historic winter heatwave taking a visible toll on the region’s rivers and ski slopes.
Reservoirs in Mediterranean countries like Italy have fallen to water levels typically associated with summer heatwaves in recent weeks, threatening agricultural production, while protests have broken out over water shortages in both France and Spain.
It comes as temperatures are poised to climb through summer and many fear Europe’s already “very precarious” water problem could get even worse.
Satellite data analyzed by researchers from Austria’s University of Graz at the start of the year found that drought was impacting Europe on a much larger scale than researchers had previously expected.
The study was published after European Union researchers found that Europe experienced its hottest summer ever last year, with the intense drought thought to be the worst the region had seen in at least 500 years.
Researchers at the University of Graz said Europe had been suffering from a severe drought since 2018, with the effects becoming clear last year as receding waters wreaked havoc for food and energy production, while numerous aquatic species lost their habitats.
“A few years ago, I would never have imagined that water would be a problem here in Europe, especially in Germany or Austria,” said Torsten Mayer-Gürr, a lead author of the satellite study.
“We are actually getting problems with the water supply here — we have to think about this.”
In Spain, which saw temperatures climb to nearly 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in April, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez warned in the same month that drought in the southern European country had become one of its leading long-term concerns.
“The government of Spain and I are aware that the debate surrounding drought is going to be one of the central political and territorial debates of our country over the coming years,” Sanchez told Parliament, according to The Associated Press.
Last month, Spain’s government approved a 2.2 billion euro ($2.4 billion) package in an attempt to alleviate the impact of drought that has hit its agricultural sector.
A farmer displays a water pot as she talks in a microphone about drought during a demonstration of farmers to draw attention on rural living conditions and to claim the importance of agriculture in the society and its contribution to the country’s economy, in Madrid on May 13, 2023.
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Meanwhile, the European Drought Observatory warned in a special snapshot report earlier this year that conditions in late winter were similar to those seen last year, when high temperatures and a lack of precipitation resulted in a widespread and protracted drought that affected much of the continent.
The latest available data shows warning conditions for drought for more than a quarter of the EU’s 27-nation bloc, while 8% of the region is in a state of drought alert.
Samantha Burgess, deputy director of the Copernicus Climate Change Service, said the outlook this summer for large parts of Europe “doesn’t look as scary as it did a month ago.”
That’s because, amid an especially variable spring which saw record-breaking April temperatures in Spain and Portugal and devastating flash floods in Italy, heavy rain across southern Europe in recent weeks has helped to top up reservoirs and improve soil moisture.
However, Burgess said large parts of northern Europe and countries including Spain, France and Portugal in the south were still looking “fairly dry” at a time when some researchers fear Europe could be on track for another brutal summer.
“For water security across Europe, we really need to change how we treat water — and I think that the events of the last year were really a wake-up call for many European decision makers,” Burgess told CNBC via telephone.
Cedric Sabate, arborist, thins his trees to help them withstand the water restrictions in Thuir, near Perpignan, southern France, on May 16, 2023.
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A spokesperson for the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, did not respond to a CNBC request for comment.
Chloe Brimicombe, a climate researcher at Austria’s University of Graz, said water scarcity was a particularly acute problem in southern Europe.
“But I do think that central and Western Europe are less prepared — and in the coming years it has the potential to hit them in a way that they really aren’t expecting,” Brimicombe told CNBC via telephone.
“Europe needs to realize that climate change is affecting them,” she continued.
“They quite like to think that climate change is affecting the global south and that’s it. And, of course, it is affecting those people a lot more, but it is also affecting Europe. Not only do they need to help the global south, but they also need to help themselves at home too — and that means stronger mitigation and adaptation measures.”