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Droughts and heatwaves: red alert for half of Europe

Ancient bridges and shipwrecks are emerging in Italy’s almost dried-up rivers. The heatwaves that stormed Europe over the past weeks continue and with no signs of rain, authorities are issuing red alerts in different countries and regions, asking citizens to limit the usage of drinking water, saving as much as possible.

Today, also the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre confirmed that almost half of Europe is highly exposed to heatwaves and droughts and it is a critical moment for the entire continent.

In Central and Eastern Europe, Hungary’s National Meteorological Service has raised the alarm, noting a continuum from the droughts of 2021. The situation is worse in central parts of the Great Plain and areas east of the river Tisza. Occasional droughts are part of Hungary’s climate but, as the Service warned, “in recent decades summers have become significantly hotter and heatwaves more frequent and more intensive.”

Agriculture: more pressure on an already negative outlook

The first negative impact is observed in agriculture, as water and heat stress are driving crop yields down from a previously already negative outlook for cereals and other crops.

In western Poland, the lack of precipitation is negatively affecting the yield formation in winter crops and, to a lesser extent, the growth of summer crops. In the Baltic countries, persistently below-average temperatures caused delays in development and below-average biomass accumulation. In eastern regions of Slovakia and Hungary and in their neighbouring regions of Romania and Ukraine, the absence of significant precipitation has reduced the yield potential of winter and spring crops. More severe impacts on winter and spring crops are observed also in south-western Ukraine and eastern Romania where the persistent lack of precipitation has turned into drought. In Turkey, the hot temperatures of early June accelerated crop development and reduced the time for biomass accumulation of winter crops.

And all of this is on top of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its already visible consequences on global food security with still very high prices of agricultural products and an inevitable increase in production costs as well, such as electricity, transport, cooling and heating.

Heatwaves also impact energy production

Not only the agriculture sector has been impacted. Energy production from run-of-river plants until the beginning of July was lower than the 2015-2021 average for many European countries. The same decrease is true for hydropower reservoir levels, affecting countries such as Serbia (-47 per cent, 220 gigawatt-hours – GWh), Romania (-5 per cent, 130 GWh) and Montenegro (-30 per cent, 100 GWh) among others.

Finally, the unfavourable forecasts for the coming months may compromise the water supply and will likely keep the competition for this resource high. The Joint Research Centre considered integrated water resources management in line with the water acquis as vital in ensuring sustainable quantity of good quality water for all water users and the environment in a given river basin. While drought mitigation strategies are of the utmost importance now, so is tackling the root cause of the problem: climate change and its disruption of the planet’s water cycle. Further efforts are needed also to preventively adapt to the changing weather patterns by climate-proofing energy supply and applying sustainable solutions in agriculture.

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