In the past, a river crossed it. Today, white dust and thousands of dead fish blanket the wide trench that winds its way through rows of trees in France’s Burgundy region in what used to be the River Tille in the village of Lux.
From dry and cracked reservoirs in Spain to falling water levels on major arteries like the Danube, Rhine and Po, an unprecedented drought is affecting almost half of Europe. It harms agricultural economies, imposes water restrictions, causes forest fires and threatens aquatic species.
There has been no significant rainfall for almost two months in the western, central and southern parts of the continent. In generally rainy Britain, the government officially declared a drought in southern and central England on Friday amid one of the hottest and driest summers on record.
And the dry spell in Europe is set to continue in what experts say is the worst drought in 500 years.
Climate change is exacerbating conditions, as warmer temperatures accelerate evaporation, thirsty plants absorb more moisture, and reduced snowfall in winter limits the supply of fresh water available for irrigation in summer. Europe is not alone in the crisis, with drought conditions also reported in East Africa, the western United States and northern Mexico.
As he strolled through the 15-metre-wide riverbed in Lux, Jean-Philippe Couasné, chief technician at the local Federation of Fisheries and Protection of the Aquatic Environment, listed the species of fish that had died in the Tilla.
“It’s heartbreaking,” he said. “On average, about 8,000 liters (2,100 gallons) flow per second. … And now, zero liters.
In upstream areas, some trout and other freshwater species may shelter in pools via fish ladders. But such systems are not available everywhere.
Without rain, the river “will continue to empty. And yes, all the fish will die. … They are trapped upstream and downstream, there is no water coming in, so the oxygen level will continue to decrease as the volume (of water) decreases,” Couasné said. “These are species that will gradually disappear.”
Jean-Pierre Sonvico, the federation’s regional chief, said diverting fish to other rivers will not help as those streams are also affected.
“Yes, it’s dramatic because what can we do? Nothing,” he said. “We are waiting, hoping for thunderstorms with rain, but the thunderstorms are very local, so we can’t count on it.”
The European Commission’s Joint Research Center warned this week that drought conditions will worsen and potentially affect 47% of the continent.
Andrea Toreti, lead researcher at the European Drought Observatory, said a drought in 2018 was so extreme that there have been no similar events in the past 500 years, “but this year, I think it’s really worse.”
For the next three months, “we still see a very high risk of dry conditions in Western and Central Europe, as well as the UK,” Toreti said.
The current situation is the result of long periods of dry weather caused by changes in global weather systems, said meteorologist Peter Hoffmann of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research near Berlin.
“It’s just that in the summer we feel it the most,” he said. “But in fact, the drought accumulates throughout the year.”
Climate change has dampened temperature differences between regions, undermining the forces that drive the jet stream, which normally brings wet Atlantic weather to Europe, he said.
A weaker or unstable jet stream can bring unusually warm air into Europe from North Africa, leading to long periods of heat. The reverse is also true, when a polar vortex of cold Arctic air can cause freezing conditions far south of where it would normally reach.
Hoffmann said observations in recent years were all at the high end of what existing climate models predicted.
Drought has prompted some European countries to impose restrictions on water use, and navigation is threatened on the Rhine and Danube.
The Rhine, Germany’s largest waterway, is expected to reach extremely low levels in the coming days. Authorities say it could become difficult for many large ships to navigate the river safely in the town of Kaub, roughly halfway between Koblenz and Mainz.
“The industries that depend on inland navigation and transport on the Rhine are of course affected, because there is less transport capacity for raw materials or finished products,” said Bastian Klein of the German Federal Institute for ‘hydrology.
On the Danube, Serbian authorities began dredging to keep ships moving.
In neighboring Hungary, large parts of Lake Velence near Budapest have turned into patches of dried mud, beaching small boats. Aeration and circulation equipment has been installed to protect wildlife, but water quality has deteriorated. A swimming ban was imposed on a beach over the weekend.
Stretches of the Po, Italy’s longest river, are so low that barges and boats that sank decades ago are resurfacing.
The drought has also affected England, which last month experienced its driest July since 1935, according to the meteorological agency Met Office. The lack of rain has depleted reservoirs, rivers and groundwater and left grasslands brown and dry.
Millions of people in the UK were already barred from watering lawns and gardens under ‘regional hosepipe bans’, and 15 million more around London will soon face such prohibition.
The drought is also hitting UK farmers, who are running out of irrigation water and having to use winter feed for animals due to a lack of grass. The charity Rivers Trust said England’s chalk streams – which allow underground springs to bubble through the spongy layer of rock – are drying up, endangering aquatic wildlife such as kingfishers and the trout.
Even countries like Spain and Portugal, which are used to long periods without rain, have seen major consequences. In the Spanish region of Andalusia, some avocado growers have had to sacrifice hundreds of trees to save others from wilting, as the Vinuela reservoir in the province of Malaga has fallen to just 13% of its capacity.
Some European farmers use tap water for their livestock when ponds and streams dry up, using up to 100 liters (26 gallons) per day per cow.
In normally green Burgundy, the source of the Seine in Paris, the grass has turned yellow-brown and tractors are kicking up giant clouds of dust.
Baptiste Colson, who owns dairy cows and grows fodder crops in the village of Moloy, said his animals were suffering, with the quality and quantity of their milk declining. The 31-year-old leader of the local Young Farmers’ Union said he was forced to dip into his winter fodder in August. “That’s the biggest concern,” Colson said.
EU corn production is expected to be 12.5 million tonnes lower than last year and sunflower production is expected to be 1.6 million tonnes lower, according to S&P Global Commodity Insights.
Colson expects a drop of at least 30% in corn yields, a major problem for feeding his cows. “We know we will have to buy food…so the cows can continue to produce milk,” he said. “From an economic point of view, the cost will be high.”