European Rivers Drying Up from Climate Change

European rivers are at their lowest levels in over 500 years. Find out why this is a problem for the global economy and for ecosystems throughout Europe.

I live in a part of Canada called The Headwaters. It’s the high country roughly in the centre of the Great Lakes Basin in Southern Ontario.

This region is the source of four major Ontario rivers. These are the Credit, the Grand, the Humber and the Nottawasaga.

Settlers moved into our province from the Great Lakes inward. So most of the area’s towns and cities are situated along these four rivers.

Rivers Were Only Real Highways in 19th Century

This includes Toronto, Brampton, Mississauga, Etobicoke, Kitchener, Waterloo and Brantford along with countless smaller communities. These rivers were the only real highways in our province when my ancestors arrived here in the 19th century.

European rivers have a similar tradition. For example, the Danube once marked the edge of the Roman Empire and the Rhine is the traditional border between France and Germany.

Transportation along European rivers contributes $80 billion to the EU economy. Each year, the continent’s rivers carry a ton of freight for every person in Europe.

European Rivers Contribute $80 Billion to Economy

The Danube flows 2,850 km easterly from Germany through Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria Romania, Moldova and Ukraine before draining into the Black Sea.

Similarly, the Rhine flows northerly for 1,230 km through Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany France and the Netherlands. It ends its journey by emptying into the North Sea.

Countless European communities depend on these and other rivers as waterways. These include Budapest, Vienna, Belgrade, Amsterdam, Cologne and Zurich among many others.

Europe Experiencing Worst Drought in 500 Years

A new report from the Global Drought Observatory and the Copernicus Emergency Management Service tells us that these vital watersheds are in danger. In fact, researchers conclude that Europe is experiencing its worst drought in at least 500 years.

River levels are at record lows. Nobody living along the Danube can remember a time when water levels in the river were as low as they are today.

Almost all of Romania is in the Danube River Basin. The river represents more than half of Romania’s water resources.

Romanians Depend on Danube for Drinking Water

Most Romanians depend on the Danube for drinking water. It also carries all Romanian and Ukrainian wastewater discharges into the Black Sea.

The Danube’s flow is now less than half its normal summer volume, which is causing a traffic jam. At the Romanian port of Zimnicea, cargo barges are stranded in the harbour waiting for a chance to pass through the one and only safe channel. 

Dredging units are working to excavate the river bottom to get cargo moving again. Even so, the Danube’s low water levels are preventing grain shipments from war-torn Ukraine from getting to market.

Electricity Generation Down by 33% Due to Water Levels

Romania also depends on the Danube for electricity. The local hydroelectric utility’s electricity generation is down by 33%.

This is only part of a drought that affects about two-thirds of Europe. It’s affecting water levels in most of Europe’s rivers, including the Rhine. 

As with the Danube, vessels are stranded in ports along the Rhine because the river is too shallow. European cities are counting on these barges to deliver coal and fuel to make up for Russian embargoes.

Climate Crisis Main Cause of Droughts

Scientists agree that the climate crisis is the main cause of these droughts. A study by researchers from the National Institute of Hydrolology and Water Management and the National Administration of Meteorology in Romania found that the natural factor with the greatest impact on water levels in the Danube Delta is climate change.

The researchers also confirmed that the climate crisis is caused by human activity, specifically the greenhouse effect caused by carbon emissions into the atmosphere. In addition to altering water levels in the Danube, climate change is also damaging the Danube Delta’s biodiversity.

Other human activities are also taking a toll on European rivers. Humanity has tamed the rivers by straightening them.

Developers Have Deforested Damned and Polluted Rivers

Developers have also deforested, damned and polluted rivers. Industrial agriculture has drained shorelines and wetlands to create more fields for cultivation.

These engineered changes have made the rivers more vulnerable to natural disasters. The habitats along European rivers have become more vulnerable to heat waves while the rivers experience extreme water levels – both flooding and droughts.

Humanity needs to change the way it thinks about natural resources like European rivers. In the past, we’ve viewed them as something to tame and conquer.

Need to Think of Ourselves as Part of River Systems

We’ve also viewed their resources as ours to exploit indefinitely. Instead, we need to think of ourselves as part of ecological systems like rivers and work to sustain them for future generations and for other species.

The long-term solution for European rivers, and for the planet, is to put a stop to the emissions that cause global warming. In the meantime, UNESCO has established the world’s first five-country biosphere reserve along the Danube, Mura and Drava rivers. 

UNESCO Protecting a Million Hectares Along Rivers

The protected area covers almost a million hectares. This expands on the Danube Delta’s protected status that began in 1998.

 “We want to slow these processes down, but it is not going away,” Robert Lichtner, coordinator of the European Union’s Strategy for the Danube Region told Yale Environment 360. “We’ll have to adapt and learn to live with it.”

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
Learn more:
Could the Drying Up of Europe’s Great River’s Be the New Normal?
Water Flow Variability in the Danube Delta Under Climatic Changes Conditions
Warmest Eight Years on Record
Trees and Plants Losing Capacity to Stop Climate Change
Climate Crisis Becomes Undeniable


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