Every spring and summer, Frederic Esniol plants millions of seeds for lettuce sold in major grocery chains, making his family business a gem in this historically rich region of France.
But this year, a menacing combination of dry skies and record-breaking heat has ruined about half of its water-hungry crop and threatened the 270-acre business some 70 miles northeast of the Mediterranean port city of Marseille.
“We’ve never seen a drought like this,” said Esniol, 55, a fourth-generation farmer.
It’s not just France. A parched Europe is facing what scientists say could be the worst water shortages in hundreds of years.
Farms lie fallow and vineyards are scorched. Reservoirs and aquifers are depleted. Rivers have dried up, exposing Roman-era artifacts and unexploded munitions of war. Wildfires have raged in a dozen countries. Numerous small towns and communities transport water because the taps have dried up.
Overall, 64% of the continent – 13 of the 27 nations in the European Union, plus Britain, Serbia, Moldova and Ukraine – are either affected by or imminently threatened by drought, according to a recent report by EU scientists predicted at least three more months with ” warmer and drier days.
The UK “reminded me of the times I visited California this summer: hot, dry and little to no rain,” said James Cheshire, a professor at University College London who studies weather patterns. “I can imagine that in many parts of Europe it is not too different. It is a very unusual time.”
Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, the region where Esniols Farm is based, is used to warm, dry summers. This year, triple-digit heat waves broke records in the south of France, while rainfall was half the usual.
Appreciated for its crisp, leafy heads with tender white seeds, Esniol lettuce is sold across France in Leclerc and Carrefour, the country’s largest grocery chains.
But in July, the region’s government ordered water use cut drastically, and the next month the dam that fed his farm ran dry.
Officials have earmarked reserves for drinking water, firefighting and emergencies — and for limited irrigation on farms that produce critical staples. Even that didn’t stop Esniol’s salad from withering in the relentless sun.
To make up some of the loss, it has increased its wholesale price by 26% to 63 cents per capita.
Nearby ranchers suffered even more.
Lily Goletto, a friend of Esniol, who raises 850 sheep, said she paid $22,000 this year to buy extra feed after everything on her rangeland — sunflowers, sorghum, grass and alfalfa — died. Still, it won’t be enough.
“We’re going to have a sad fall,” said Goletto, who plans to sell 150 ewes. “We will still lose money, but we have no choice. Everyone is in the same boat. They are also in a drought which means they are not harvesting either. It’s a vicious circle that just keeps getting worse.”
Drought isn’t new to Europe – which has a variety of climate zones and rainfall patterns – and the current one began in 2018. But scientists say human-caused climate change is altering the continent, increasing the likelihood it will become more frequent and prolonged Drought, like in the American West.
“We always think that Europe is a water-rich region, especially the central and northern parts,” said Rohini Kumar, a hydrologist at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany. “Not anymore, not longer. We’re not water rich. We’ve been experiencing drought for a couple of years. We need to start rethinking what kind of crops we grow and how we use our water.”
The shift could be linked to a high-pressure system in the North Atlantic known as the Azores High that has expanded as the planet warmed, researchers say. The system pushes rain north, causing drier conditions in Portugal, Spain and the western Mediterranean.
Politicians and activists have used the crisis as a reminder that the world is falling short of its greenhouse gas emission reduction targets and is heading for even worse climate change impacts, including more fires, heavier storms and rising sea levels.
“Climate change is killing,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said recently while surveying trees charred in a massive forest fire in Extremadura, a region bordering Portugal. “It kills people, kills our ecosystem, biodiversity.”
The European Commission estimates that the current drought has cost the EU $9 billion a year – a figure it says could rise to $45 billion by the end of the century if the climate continues to warm.
The most immediate concern is agriculture.
In Italy, rice field farmers who depend on the severely depleted Po River warn of risotto shortages. In Spain, the world’s largest olive oil producer, less rainfall has reduced production by a third.
In Germany, the drought hit as farmers were still being economically hurt by another climate-related disaster – floods – that decimated crops in 2021. Yields improved this year, but still lagged behind the average for the last ten years. Farmers’ groups say potato and sugar beet harvests, coming later in the year, could be particularly disappointing if the drought persists.
“The ongoing drought in many regions of the country shows once again that farmers are feeling the effects of climate change very directly,” said Joachim Rukwied, President of the German Farmers’ Association.
Perhaps the most worrying effect of the drought in Germany was the depletion of the Rhine. As the river receded near the town of Emmerich near the border with the Netherlands this summer, a ship’s hull slowly emerged from the mud. It turned out to be De Hoop, which sank in 1895 after catching fire when a freighter laden with dynamite exploded.
In Bonn, Germany, authorities have warned residents not to walk on dry riverbanks lest resurfaced WWII duds could explode.
The river that crosses Germany is an economic lifeline, as important as the Mississippi in the United States.
At one point last month, an already-shallow portion dropped to a depth of 15 inches, rendering it impassable to cargo ships. Even at deeper points, shippers have been forced to reduce cargo loads to keep the boats higher in the water.
“Climate change is making the situation on the Rhine worse and worse,” says Marco Speksnijder, who looks after 25 ships that are on the Rhine for the shipping company Contargo.
“There is less snow in the Alps, and that means less water in Lake Constance and less water in the Rhine,” he said, referring to the lake, which borders Germany, Austria and Switzerland. “That makes it harder to plan ahead because water levels are so low more often.”
Of course, the water levels will eventually rise again – which could bring other problems in the Netherlands. The drought is threatening the 19th-century levee network that the lowlands depend on to prevent flooding. Often built of peat, the dikes absorb water like sponges and become prone to holes and cracks without adequate rainfall.
Even Britain, known for its year-round rains and lush greenery, has had to grapple with the prospect of a drier future. Rainfall in July was just over a third of normal in London, and much of the rest of southern England received about a fifth of an inch – the lowest total for the month since the government began keeping records in 1836.
Parks in London were crisp and brown until recent sporadic rains offered a respite. Now, trees are showing signs of what scientists have dubbed “false autumn,” as the stress of a changing climate causes leaves to turn color and fall earlier than usual.
“I came here for recent summer vacation, but it feels more like a dry LA park mixed with New York’s fall,” said Janice Tran, a 30-year-old tourist from San Francisco who was picnicking with friends late last month in London Fields Park in east London.
Ian Holman, a professor who heads the Center for Water, Environment and Development at Britain’s Cranfield University, said the drought has shattered the image of Britain as “a green and pleasant country”.
“We don’t usually have a dry season and we rain as much in summer as in winter,” he said.
In August, authorities in all nine regions of England declared a drought as utilities banned garden watering.
Lidl, a discount grocery chain, said it will sell “stunted” products to make up for expected shortages. Another chain, Waitrose, said it was expanding its “slightly less than perfect” range of items, including apples, carrots and strawberries.
“As long as my grocery bill doesn’t go up and everything is safe and edible, I don’t have a problem with my fruit and veg looking a little wobbly,” said Jessica Steiner, a 42-year-old web designer, as she browsed the produce aisle at Lidl in East London.
Back in France, Esniol ponders his future. Instead of throwing away his unsaleable lettuce, he had Goletto bring her sheep to his fields to devour.
“It was the old lettuce, the broken lettuce, the heads that were left behind,” Esniol said. “But at least it was fresh, and the animals need that.”
Still, he knows that the survival of the farm his great-grandparents started might depend on forces beyond his control.
“If we have a good fall with lots of rain, that helps. It might even turn out well,” Esniol said, “but if we don’t, we’re cooked.”
Times staffer Kaleem reported from London and special correspondent Johnson reported from Mane. Special correspondent Erik Kirschbaum in Berlin contributed to this report.
https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2022-09-04/drought-europe-climate-change Drought in Europe 2022: California isn’t alone in the crisis