March 22, 2012
For the last three months the Iberian Peninsula and South-Eastern Britain have suffered from the worst droughts for several decades, with hardly any rainfall, less than 20 mm in Spain and Portugal. This dramatic situation has hardly been noticed outside the countries directly affected: city dwellers are less and less sensitive to natural catastrophes that do not happen at their own door steps!
The droughts have severely hit agriculture, forcing farmers to change or abandon crops. Fruit and grain harvests will be substantially lower. Hydro power has been falling short, due to empty reservoirs; private and commercial water users have been invited to restrict the use of water.
The last serious drought in the Iberian peninsula dates back to 2005, when the output of grain in Spain dropped by 45 per cent, that of wine and fruits by 20 and 13 per cent respectively. If rain continues to fall short much longer the 2012 drought is likely to generate similar losses, which will further worsen the economic crisis.
The UK Environment Secretary has called the drought the “new norm”, something Europeans will have to live with; and Spanish authorities expect recurring cycles between droughts and normal rainfall.
The frequency of severe droughts in Europe, in particular in Spain and Portugal, is part of global climate change. Climate scientists have predicted this for the Mediterranean region.
Europe being incapable by itself to combat global climate change it will have to live with its many consequences, from droughts to floods, hurricanes and milder winters and practice damage limitation, droughts having cost the EU some € 3 billion annually during the last three decades, affecting 17 per cent of its territory.
The EU has woken up to the challenge, but without taking effective counter measures yet. In October 2007, the Environment Council has for the first time addressed the water challenge, formulating seven policy options: more efficient use and stricter pricing of water, improved supply infrastructure and water use technologies and a water saving culture.
It has invited the Commission to regularly review the situation and develop a scarcity and drought policy by 2012. But until this date the Commission has failed to make proposals for a comprehensive long-term water policy.
The most recent extreme drought will induce the Commission to accelerate its work.
Using less water and using it more efficiently will have to be crucial answer to a drier climate with regular drought spells. Indeed, according to EU Commission estimates some 40 per cent of water in the EU is being wasted due to inefficiencies.
These are a few tough recommendations for an EU water policy:
- Member countries should take appropriate measures for curtailing water consumption and collect essentially all rain and used water.
- Drip technologies should become the dominant irrigation technology;
- Agricultural water rates must no longer be subsidised and no incentives for large-scale irrigation.
- Household water rates should become more expensive beyond a minimum supply free of charge.
- Mediterranean member countries need to adapt their crops to changing climate conditions. This implies abandoning water-intensive cultures in favour of perennial cultures like olives and wine that are less sensitive to droughts.
- Marginal drought-sensitive land should be turned into more drought-resistant forest areas or solar power plants.
Author : Eberhard Rhein