Warnings have been issued by multiple governments around Europe of critical water shortages as the winter drought continues to make its presence felt, with heatwaves and a dearth of rainfall leaving river systems high and dry.
According to the Guardian, tourists can now walk across to the island of San Biagio in northern Italy, which is usually only accessible by boat – thanks to water levels that are 70cm lower than average and the fact that the Alps have seen 63 per cent less snow than is typical.
And in south-west France, Lac de Montbel is now more than 80 percent empty, while the shallow waters of the Rhine in Germany are wreaking havoc with barge traffic, forcing boats to only load at half capacity. Catalonia, meanwhile, has seen water shortages for the last three years, leading Barcelona to stop watering its parks.
In France, local authorities covering all seven of the nation’s major river basins have now been ordered to bring in water restrictions, as the government puts together a crisis plan to tackle shortages that it now believes will inevitably result in water scarcity problems in 2023.
Thus far, the country has recorded 32 days without significant rainfall, the longest period of time since record-keeping began back in 1959. Christophe Bechu, minister for ecological transition, has now warned that France will have to manage with up to 40 percent less water in the future, with the country now on a state of alert.
As for Spain, the entire country has been in drought since January 2022, but in Catalonia water supplies have dropped so low that laws have now been introduced that include a 40 per cent reduction water for agricultural purposes, a 15 per cent reduction for industry and a drop from 250 litres to 230 litres for the average daily supply per capita.
The worst-affected areas are currently the northern third of the country, as well as the south of Castilla-La Mancha and parts of Andalucia.
Ruben del Campo, spokesman for meteorological agency Aemet, explained that there are no signs of the situation improving over the next few months or so, adding: “We’ve noticed the droughts in the south of Spain are lasting longer and that, when the rains come, they’re shorter but more intense. It’s badly spaced out.
“When the rains are hard, they’re less useful for refilling reservoirs and watering the fields, which need gentler rain.”
And over in Italy, the government is apparently readying a taskforce to tackle the impact of severe drought, which is already having an effect on agriculture. Water levels in the River Po are 61 per cent down on the average for February, with Gilberto Pichetto – environment and energy security minister – warning that water rationing may be necessary in some parts of the country.
The snow deficit and winter drought could potentially hit Germany and Austria the hardest, however, with scientists warning that less snow over the last few months will mean that there’s less meltwater available to supply rivers in central Europe this summer.
The problem with groundwater
One area of increasing concern is the depletion of groundwater across Europe. These sources can provide water supplies during periods of low rainfall (as is now being seen across the continent), but if the lack of rainfall is prolonged, groundwater reserves can also dry up.
In December last year, the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada revealed that Europe saw a steady depletion of water in its aquifers between 2002 and 2022.
Although there were some exceptions (such as Scandinavia), most of Europe is now losing more groundwater each year than is being replaced by rainfall and other recharge sources.
Groundwater (which is found below ground in the spaces in rock, sand and soil, stored in aquifers – subterranean layers of permeable rock) comes to the surface naturally or it can make its way into rivers, lakes and streams. It’s also possible to abstract supplies directly from the source via a well, with water brought to the surface using a pump system.
Demand for water resources in Europe is met largely through abstraction from groundwater sources, as well as rivers, reservoirs and lakes, so it will become increasingly important to monitor changes in abstraction in order to promote efficient water usage and consumption.
Figures from the European Environment Agency show that in 2019, almost 65 per cent of total public water supply and 25 per cent of agricultural water demands was taken from groundwater resources. This may well be affected in the future, with the pressures of climate change likely to have an impact on the seasonal variability in surface water availability.
Water efficiency tips for business
From a business perspective, it will become increasingly important to reduce water usage and consumption in order to ensure resilience and continuation of operations.
Water shortages are expected to become the reality in as little as ten years, even here in the UK with our famously damp climate, so companies that take action now and address the water footprint of their supply chain will find that they’re more likely to be able to carry on as normal… as well as saving themselves money into the bargain.
Businesses can do their part by becoming more water efficient, very often savings in both water consumption and waste water discharge can exceed 30 percent, there are may other ways from switching water supplier to water bill audits and water bill validation all designed to maximise savings and achieve business sustainability targets great for our enviroment and business.