The Heat Is Online

Europe Alarmed by Extended Drought, Water Scarcity

Climate Fears, Water Shortages Haunt Europe, Jan. 11, 2006


PARIS - France and Spain are ringing alarm bells over the climate, fearing a repeat of last year's drought that sparked deadly forest fires, costly crop failures and widespread water rationing in southern Europe.


France's environment minister has said three dry years in a row have left the country facing possibly record water shortages this year.

"This could be a very difficult year, and perhaps a record in terms of drought," Nelly Olin said.


The European Environment Agency (EEA) says water shortages and soaring temperatures in southern Europe are becoming the norm, and its climate models suggest much of the continent may start to become drier as deserts advance.


"Across Europe, climate change already appears to be impacting many sectors of society," the EEA said in its latest outlook report.

"Higher temperatures and more intense droughts are producing a rising trend in the number and severity of forest fires in the Mediterranean," it added.


Many scientists say emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide from cars, power plants and factories are building up in the atmosphere and driving up global temperatures.


Fires were a particular problem in Portugal last year, claiming the life of 18 people and destroying 300,000 hectares (750,000 acres) of forest.


In Spain, fires also raged last year, special wells had to be dug in the south of the country and crops were decimated.


Spain has already announced new water management measures, including construction of a new desalination plant in the parched southeast.


Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega has said another year of drought is likely.




Olin said France's water table was now seriously low after a heatwave in 2003 that killed thousands of people, a dry 2004/05 winter and low rainfall for much of last year.


Autumn 2005 rainfall was 50 percent of the average in some parts of the country.


"Even if it rains heavily in the next two and a half months, the water table will not be fully replenished," she said.


France imposed water rationing across the country in 2005, slapping irrigation curbs on farmers and hosepipe bans on the public. Olin said even harsher curbs would be enforced this summer if water levels remained unchanged by the end of March.


French farmers, who faced criticism last year over their high water use, have said this year they may switch out of crops like maize that need a lot of irrigation.


Britain's Environment Agency has warned that a winter with low rainfall in southern England could cause a "serious drought, widespread environmental damage and restrictions on water use".

Spain's National Meteorological Institute (INM) says the drought persisted in the first quarter of the new water year, which runs from September to August.


"The forecasts, at least what we can see in the next month or not allow us to foresee a situation in which it rains as much as is necessary to solve this," said Angel Rivera, the INM's director of forecasting.


Spain's water reserves stand at just 45 percent of capacity, recent Environment Ministry data show.


Spain's cereal crop was devastated by last year's drought, while hydroelectric power generation - one of the cheapest and cleanest ways of producing electricity - fell to its lowest in 48 years, according to grid data.