Europe Is Bracing for (Another) Devastating Drought

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What happens during the next few months will really matter. Abundant rainfall could ease the situation and stave off the worst-case scenario. But Europe needs a lot. “We’re talking about a sea, a sea’s worth of water,” says Hannah Cloke at the University of Reading in the UK. In terms of volume, hundreds of millions of cubic liters of rain would have to fall across the continent to fill the deficit, she estimates. It would have to amount to higher-than-average rainfall for France and certain other places, including parts of the UK. The chances of that are, unfortunately, not high.

The UK’s weather agency, the Met Office, estimates there’s a 10 percent chance of a wetter-than-average March, April, and May. Conversely, there’s a 30 percent chance that this period will be drier than average—and that is 1.5 times the normal chance at this time of year. The Met Office stresses that this is a “broad outlook,” and there might still be patches of very wet weather even if it remains dry overall.

Any rain that does fall also has to fall in the right way and in the right places. “There’s always this chance that if we do get it all in two days, we see some very serious floods,” says Cloke. “What we want is to see sustained, reasonably gentle rain over the next few months.”

Another important factor is how hot it gets this summer, says Cammalleri. Heat waves push up water consumption and increase evaporation rates. He indicates that European forecasts do not suggest that temperatures will be quite as blisteringly hot as last year—though there is a certain quality there too.

Because the chances of drought this year are non-negligible—to put it mildly—experts who spoke to WIRED advised preparing now to avert the worst effects of a dry summer. Curtailing water use is an obvious but crucial step. France is far from the only place where restrictions on consumption are in force. In the UK, a hosepipe ban introduced last summer has remained in place all winter in the southwestern county of Cornwall and part of neighboring Devon.

In Catalonia In northeastern Spain, new water-use restrictions have just been introduced—farms must cut consumption by 40 percent and industry must cut by 15 percent. Cleaning streets with drinkable water is no longer allowed. And in Switzerland, some local authorities are distributing leaflets asking residents not to waste water. “We should prepare for the worst,” says Kumar.

In recent years, various countries including Switzerland have attempted to protect their water sources—by covering glaciers and mountain snow with giant sheets that reflect the sun. This can be effective in small areas but, in terms of ensuring water resources for many millions of people, it may not be a sustainable option, suggests Manuela Brunner of ETH Zurich and the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research in Davos, Switzerland.

Looking to the medium and long term, Brunner argues that we are witnessing a shift in consciousness regarding drought in Europe, with Switzerland, for example, on the cusp of setting up a countrywide system for drought detection and notification. “This is kind of a big step, from not talking about drought warnings to having a national drought-warning platform,” she says. The service is due to be operational from 2025.

Countries also need to get a grip on their leaky pipework—roughly a quarter of drinking water in Europe is lost this way. We might all be drinking more recycled wastewater soon too. Researchers in Barcelona recently evaluated the safety of wastewater that would ordinarily be pumped into the sea. In a paper published this monththey explain that once chemically treated and diluted, the water appeared safe for human consumption. They suggest that doing this could help to supply Barcelona with water during severe droughts.

Big changes are inevitable, says Cammalleri: “Adapting to this kind of drought cannot really be solved with short-term action.” And although anthropogenic climate change is not the only factor behind Europe’s ongoing drought—natural variation in water levels also plays a role—increasingly high temperatures each summer will make the situation worse. Brunner’s advice on this point is encapsulated in just three words: “Stop climate change.”

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