In some places, the Loire can now be crossed on foot; France’s longest river has never flowed so slowly. The Rhine is quickly becoming impassable for inland shipping. In Italy, the Po is 2 meters lower than normal, leading to crippling crops. Serbia dredges the Danube.
Across Europe, the drought is causing once-mighty rivers to trickle down, with potentially dramatic consequences for industry, freight, energy and food production – just as the supply shortage and price hikes caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are biting.
Driven by climate collapse, an unusually dry winter and spring followed by record-breaking summer temperatures and repeated heatwaves have left Europe’s vital waterways under-recharged and increasingly overheated.
With no significant rainfall for nearly two months in western, central and southern Europe and no forecast for the foreseeable future, meteorologists say the drought could become the continent’s worst in more than 500 years.
“We have not fully analyzed this year’s event as it is still ongoing,” said Andrea Toreti of the European Commission’s Joint Research Center. “There were no other events in the past 500 [years] similar to the drought of 2018. But I think this year is worse.”
He said there was “a very high risk of dry conditions” over the next three months, adding that without effective mitigation, drought intensity and frequency “would increase dramatically in Europe, both north and south”.
The German Federal Institute of Hydrology (BfG) said the level of the Rhine, whose water is used for freight transport, irrigation, manufacturing, power generation and drinking water, will continue to fall until at least early next week.
On Friday, at the critical Kaub mark, 50km downstream from Mainz – which measures navigability rather than water depth – the water dropped below 40cm, the level at which many shipping lines no longer consider it economical for barges. It could drop to nearly 30cm in the coming days, the BfG said.
Many inland vessels, which carry coal for power plants and essential raw materials for industrial giants such as steelmaker Thyssen and chemical giant BASF, are already operating at a capacity of about 25% to reduce their draft, raising shipping costs by up to fivefold.
A vital part of the economy of northwestern Europe for centuries, the 760 miles (1,233 km) of the Rhine flows from Switzerland through the industrial heartland of Germany before reaching the North Sea at the megaport of Rotterdam.
A total shutdown of Rhine navigation would hit the German – and European – economy hard: experts have calculated that a six-month suspension in 2018 would cost around 5 billion euros (£4.2 billion), while low water levels Germany 0.2 points economic costs. grow this year.
While the EU has said increasing water freight by 25% is one of the bloc’s green transition priorities, Germany is now working on a diversion to rail and road – although it will take between 40 and 100 trucks to get there. to replace a standard inland cargo.
France’s rivers may not be major freight arteries, but they do serve to cool the nuclear power plants that produce 70% of the country’s electricity. With prices reaching unprecedented heights, energy giant EDF has been forced to cut production due to the drought.
Strict rules regulate how much nuclear power plants can raise river temperatures when they discharge cooling water – and if record low water levels and high air temperatures mean the river is already overheated, they have no choice but to cut production. With Europe’s looming energy crisis deepening and the Garonne, Rhone and Loire rivers already too hot to discharge cooling water, France’s nuclear regulator last week allowed five plants to temporarily break the rules.
In Italy, the parched Po, Italy’s longest river, has fallen to a tenth of its normal rate, and the water level is 2 meters below normal. With no sustained rainfall in the region since November, maize and risotto rice production has been hit hard.
The Po Valley accounts for 30% to 40% of Italy’s agricultural production, but rice growers in particular have warned that up to 60% of their crops could be lost if the rice fields dry out and are spoiled by seawater drawn in by the low river level .
In the protected wetlands of the river delta, near Venice, high temperatures and slow currents have reduced the oxygen content of the water to an extent that an estimated 30% of the mussels growing in the lagoon have already been killed.
Low river levels and high water temperatures can be deadly for many species. In Bavaria, the Danube reached 25C last week and could reach 26.5C by the middle of the month, meaning oxygen levels would drop below six parts per million – deadly for trout.
Freight traffic on the Danube’s 2,850 km has also been heavily disrupted, prompting authorities in Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria to dredge deeper channels, while barges carrying mostly fuel for the power generators wait to move on.
Even Norway, which relies on hydropower for about 90% of its electricity generation, has said the unusually low levels of its reservoirs could eventually force it to curtail electricity exports.