Europe’s evaporating rivers are wreaking havoc on meals and vitality manufacturing

France’s Loire is at its lowest as Europe experiences what is believed to be its worst drought in at least 500 years.

Guillaume Souvant | AFP | Getty Images

Europe’s rivers are drying up after a prolonged period of extremely hot weather, raising concerns about food and energy production at a time when prices are already skyrocketing due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

A severe lack of rainfall and a series of heat waves from May have visibly affected the region’s waterways.

In France it has become possible in some places to cross the Loire on foot; there are fears that the water level at a major German bottleneck on the Rhine, one of Europe’s most important waterways, could again be closed to commercial traffic; and the drought-stricken waters of Italy’s Po River have uncovered artifacts from World War II – including a 50-metre barge and a previously submerged bomb.

“We haven’t seen this level of drought in a very long time. Water levels in some key waterways are at their lowest in decades,” Matthew Oxenford, senior analyst for Europe and climate policy at The Economist Intelligence Unit, a research and consulting firm, told CNBC by phone.

The wreck of a German World War II warship is seen in the Danube River in Prahovo, Serbia, August 18, 2022.

Fedja Grulovic | Reuters

“There is very little clearance for some of the main canals, sometimes less than 30 centimeters of clearance before the canal is completely inoperable for any type of shipping,” he added.

“So that’s going to have a very significant impact on the economic and human activities that take place around these waterways, as we’re likely to remain in some form of drought for some time.”

Worst drought in 500 years

According to a preliminary analysis by the European Union’s Joint Research Center, Europe is suffering what is likely its worst drought in at least 500 years.

In early August, the Global Drought Observatory report said about two-thirds of Europe was under some sort of drought warning, meaning the soil has dried out and vegetation is “showing signs of stress”.

The analysis found that almost all European rivers have dried up to some degree, while water and heat stress have “significantly reduced” summer crop yields. Grain corn, soybean and sunflower forecasts should be 16%, 15% and 12% below the five-year average, respectively.

This comes as food prices remain stubbornly high amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, a key producer of commodities such as wheat, corn and sunflower oil.

When you grow up in Central Europe people usually like the sun – but now let’s hope for rain.

Axel Bronstert

Professor of hydrology and climatology at the University of Potsdam

The EU report warned that the western Euro-Mediterranean region was likely to remain warmer and drier than usual until November.

Certainly, the deepening climate emergency has made high temperatures and droughts more intense and widespread. And lower nighttime temperatures, which normally provide crucial relief from hot days, will disappear as the planet warms.

“The problem is the severity of this particular drought,” Axel Bronstert, a professor of hydrology and climatology at the University of Potsdam in Germany, told CNBC by phone.

“Growing up in Central Europe, people usually like the sun – but now we’re hoping for rain,” Bronstert said, noting that it was previously unknown for some smaller rivers in the region to dry up completely at this time of year.

“Without really heavy rains in the next few weeks, there’s a good chance that water levels will continue to drop,” he added.

In addition to the environmental and health impacts of the drought, Bronstert said the parched conditions had resulted in a “very poor” harvest for many different crops in Germany.

In Italy’s Po Valley, home to about 30% of the country’s agricultural output, searing heat and exceptionally dry conditions have impacted maize and sunflower production.

Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Soaring food and energy prices have fueled a sharp rise in inflation, with consumer prices in the 19 countries using the euro rising to a new record high of 9.1% in August.

“I think the more important point I want to emphasize is that in some ways anomalies like this will become more frequent in the coming years due to climate change,” said EIU’s Oxenford, noting the possibility of more intense droughts, storms, heat waves and floods in Europe.

“So, I think the way to deal with the economic impact of all this is for countries to invest more in preparing for things that used to be very unusual – but which are going to be much more common now. Climate change is putting a lot of patterns of activity on the table.” heads that have been built up over centuries.”

Race to secure the energy supply

Oxenford said the economic impact of Europe’s evaporating waterways is likely to be “multi-faceted”, and highlighted the prospect of halting shipping along the Rhine as one of the biggest risks.

With a length of around 1,320 kilometers, the Rhine is one of the longest and most important rivers in Europe. It connects the major port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands through the industrial heartland of Germany and further south into inland Switzerland.

The water level of the German Rhine has stabilized above the crisis level in recent weeks. However, protracted forecasts of high temperatures and low rainfall have fueled fears that the transportation of everything from food to chemicals to energy could soon grind to a halt.

According to the federal government, the water level in Kaub – a measuring station west of Frankfurt and an important bottleneck for shipping – is expected to drop to 86 centimeters (around 34 inches) by the end of the week. A normal water level would be around the 200 centimeter mark.

In 2018, the water level of the Rhine dropped to just 30 centimeters in places, forcing ships to temporarily stop transporting cargo.

An unloaded barge moves along the river Rhine at low water in Duisburg, western Germany, on August 9, 2022.

Ina Fassbender | AFP | Getty Images

Andrew Kenningham, chief economist for Europe at consultancy Capital Economics, said in a research note that a sustained decline in Rhine water levels in the third and fourth quarters of this year could cut 0.2 percentage points of Germany’s gross domestic product.

Kenningham said the drop in Rhine water levels was a relatively minor concern for German industry compared to the region’s deepening gas crisis.

Elsewhere, the warming of France’s rivers in recent weeks threatened to reduce the country’s already low level of nuclear energy. Summer heatwaves have further warmed rivers like the Rhone and Garonne, which state-owned energy company EDF uses to cool its nuclear power plant reactors.

France’s nuclear regulator has since extended temporary exemptions to allow five power plants to continue dumping hot water into rivers ahead of a looming energy crisis, Reuters reported.

And in Norway, a northern European country that relies heavily on hydropower, lack of rain has meant the amount of electricity generated by dams has plummeted. The Norwegian government then announced in early August that it intended to restrict electricity exports.

European governments are scrambling to fill up underground storage with gas supplies to have enough fuel to keep homes warm for months to come.

Russia – which supplied around 40% of the EU’s gas last year – has slashed supplies to Europe in recent weeks, citing faulty and delayed equipment.

— CNBC’s Emma Newburger contributed to this report.

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