What happens over the next few months will really matter. Heavy rainfall could ease the situation and avert the worst-case scenario. But Europe needs a lot. “We’re talking about a sea, a sea of water,” says Hannah Cloke of the University of Reading in the UK. In terms of volume, hundreds of millions of cubic liters of rain would need to fall across the continent to make up the shortfall, she estimates. This is expected to represent above average rainfall for France and some other locations including parts of the UK. The chances of this happening are unfortunately not high.
Britain’s weather agency, the Met Office, estimates there’s a 10% chance that March, April and May will be wetter than average. Conversely, there is a 30% chance that this period will be drier than average, or 1.5 times the normal chance for this time of year. The Met Office stresses that this is a “broad outlook” and that there could still be areas of very wet weather even if it remains dry overall.
Any rain that falls must also fall in the right way and in the right places. “There’s always this chance that if we get it all in two days we’ll see some really bad flooding,” Cloke says. “What we want is to see sustained and reasonably mild rain over the next few months.”
Another important factor is how hot it is this summer, Cammalleri says. Heat waves increase water consumption and increase evaporation rates. He says European forecasts do not suggest temperatures will be as warm as last year, although there is some uncertainty there too.
Because the risk of drought this year is not negligible – to say the least – experts who spoke to WIRED advised to prepare now to avoid the worst effects of a dry summer. Reducing water use is an obvious but crucial step. France is far from the only place where restrictions on consumption are in force. In the UK, a garden hose ban introduced last summer has remained in place all winter in south-west Cornwall and part of neighboring Devon.
In Catalonia in the northeast of Spain, new restrictions on the use of water have just been introduced: farms must reduce their consumption by 40% and industry by 15%. Street cleaning with drinking water is no longer allowed. And in Switzerland, some local authorities are distribute leaflets asking residents not to waste water. “We have to prepare for the worst,” Kumar says.
In recent years, various countries, including Switzerland, have attempted to protect their water sources by covering glaciers and mountain snow with giant leaves that reflect the sun. This can be effective in small areas but, in terms of securing water resources for several million people, it may not be a sustainable option, suggests Manuela Brunner of ETH Zurich and the Institute of snow and avalanche research in Davos, Switzerland.
Looking at the medium to long term, Brunner says we are seeing a shift in awareness about drought in Europe, with Switzerland, for example, about to set up a national drought detection and notification system. Drought. “It’s kind of a big step forward, from not talking about drought warnings to a national drought warning platform,” she says. The service should be operational from 2025.
Countries also need to get their leaky pipes under control – about a quart of drinking water in Europe is thus lost. We could all soon be drinking more recycled wastewater. Researchers in Barcelona recently assessed the safety of wastewater that would normally be discharged into the sea. In a article published this month, they explain that once chemically treated and diluted, the water seemed safe for human consumption. They suggest it could help supply Barcelona with water during severe droughts.
Big changes are inevitable, says Cammalleri: “Adapting to this kind of drought can’t really be solved by short-term action. And although anthropogenic climate change is not the only factor Behind the persistent drought in Europe (the natural variation in water levels also plays a role), the increasingly high temperatures each summer will make the situation worse. Brunner’s advice on this point can be summed up in three words: “Stop climate change.