As much of Europe broods in a third heat wave since June, fears are growing that extreme drought caused by climate change in the continent’s breadbasket nations will hurt stable crop yields and deepen the cost of living crisis.
The European Commission on Wednesday urged EU member states to reuse treated urban wastewater to irrigate the continent’s parched farms after France and parts of England experienced the driest July on record.
In France, where an intense drought has ravaged farmers and led to widespread restrictions on freshwater use, there was just 9.7 millimeters (0.38 inches) of rain last month, Meteo France said.
That was 84 percent less than July between 1991 and 2022, making it the driest month since March 1961, the agency added.
Farmers across the country are reporting difficulties feeding livestock due to parched grasslands, while irrigation has been banned in large areas in the northwest and southeast due to freshwater shortages.
Environment Minister Christophe Bechu said July’s rains accounted for “only 12 percent of what is needed”.
France is the fourth largest wheat exporter and one of the top five maize exporters in the world. Poor harvests due to drought could put further pressure on grain supplies after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent global shockwaves.
“Our food system has been under stress for some time and with the supply problems from Ukraine it has only gotten worse,” said Shouro Dasgupta, environmental economist at the Euro-Mediterranean Center on Climate Change.
“These heatwaves will come on top of droughts and will cause crops to wither faster.”
Dasgupta said the extreme heat caused by climate change is also contributing to food price inflation for consumers and harsher conditions for producers.
“Droughts and heat waves affect people’s livelihoods. People will be able to afford less food,” he told AFP.
“And during heatwaves, field workers can only work fewer hours, which has cascading effects on supplies.”
– “Food systems don’t work” –
Britain’s Met Office said this week that much of southern and eastern England had its driest July on record.
Some water utilities have already announced restrictions affecting millions of people, and fruit and vegetable producers have announced several crop losses such as beans and berries.
UK inflation rose to a 40-year high in June on rising fuel and food prices.
Elizabeth Robinson, director of the London School of Economics’ Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, said that rising food costs – exacerbated by heat-related losses in Europe and the UK – are a sign that “the food systems are not for people work.”
“There are some long-term, difficult conversations that need to be had, particularly about food waste and diverting grains away from food so people can feed animals,” she told AFP.
In Spain, already parched under a prolonged heat spell, temperatures will surpass 40 degrees in several areas this week.
The heat is exacerbating the water shortages that have dogged Spanish agriculture since last winter, with local restrictions on water use in the hardest-hit regions.
The government said this week that Spain’s reservoirs are now at 40.4 percent capacity.
Juan Carlos Hervas of farmers’ union COAG told AFP that Spain’s olive harvest from unirrigated land will be less than 20 percent of the average over the past five years.
Spain supplies almost half of the world’s olive oil.
– “The worst drought of this century” –
Portugal, where temperatures topped 40 degrees again this week, is experiencing “the worst drought of this century,” Environment Minister Jose Duarte Cordeiro warned last month.
Portugal, along with Poland, has urged its citizens to reduce water consumption to ease the pressure.
“Water authorities across Europe are unprepared for what scientists have been saying for three decades,” Dasgupta said. “A high occurrence of heat waves will affect the water supply”.
The European Commission found in an updated assessment last month that almost half – 44 percent – of the EU and UK are currently experiencing drought warning levels.
It warned that exceptionally low soil moisture would mean that several countries, including France, Romania, Spain, Portugal and Italy, will see lower crop yields in 2022.
“The unfavorable forecasts for the coming months may threaten the water supply and will likely keep competition for this resource high,” it said.
A separate EU bulletin, also last month, said EU yields of soybeans, sunflowers and corn were already 9 percent below average.
On Wednesday Virginijus Sinkevicius, European Commissioner for Environment, Fisheries and Oceans. urged EU countries to reuse more wastewater.
“We must stop wasting water and use this resource more efficiently in order to adapt to climate change and ensure the security and sustainability of our agricultural supply,” he said.
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