By Charlotte McLaughlin and Jack Newman for MailOnline
More than half of Europe is now under a warning for drought that is on course to become its worst in 500 years as Germany’s most-important river is running dry.
The latest European Drought Observatory data, published today, shows that a total of sixty-four percent of the land in the EU and United Kingdom is now under a drought warning or alert.
According to the latest map of the Combined Drought Indicator, which is based on July data, 47 per cent of the territory is in ‘warning’ conditions which means there is a deficit of moisture in the soil, and 17 per cent is in alert conditions where vegetation is stressed.
The map shows that the places that are experiencing the most drought include the UK, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Italy, Hungary, Poland and Romania. While the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology predicts ‘exceptionally low’ flow levels in rivers until October.
The news comes as water levels in the Rhine are now so low that it could become impassable to barges later this week, threatening vital supplies of oil and coal.
Wildfires are also spreading again throughout France, torching an area that was already badly-hit as temperatures soared to record levels last month, and there have also been fears food production will fall well below average.
Bone dry: Almost half of EU land is currently under a drought warning or worse because of a combination of heatwaves and a ‘wide and persistent’ lack of rain, experts have warned. A map (pictured) reveals the countries most at risk. Areas in orange are under ‘warning’ conditions, while 15 per cent of land has moved into the most severe ‘alert’ state (shown in red)
The Rhine river – Germany’s most-important waterway – is running so low that it may soon become impassable to barges, threatening huge economic damage
The droughts are not only affecting Germany, with Spain, southern France, Portugal and most of Italy suffering from the shortages
A firefighters tries to extinguishe a wildfire in the Sameiro village near the town of Manteigas in Portugal today which has been raging since Saturday
The Rhine – which carries 80 per cent of all goods transported by water in Germany, from its industrial heartlands to Dutch ports – are now so low that it could become impassable to barges later this week, threatening vital supplies of oil and coal that the country is relying upon as Russia turns off the gas tap.
The river is already lower now than it was at the same point in 2018, when Europe suffered its last major drought. That year, the river ended up closing to goods vessels for 132 days, almost triggering a recession. Costs to transport goods by river this year have already risen five-fold as barges limit their capacity to stay afloat.
Economists estimate the disruption could knock as much as half a percentage point off Germany’s overall economic growth this year, with experts warning the country was facing recession due to an energy crisis even before the drought hit.
Andrea Toreti, senior researcher at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, said: ‘We haven’t analysed fully [this] event, but based on my experience I think that this is perhaps even more extreme than in 2018.
‘2018 was so extreme that looking back at this list of the last 500 years, there were no other events similar.’
The EU’s climate monitoring agency Copernicus said on Monday: ‘Europe experienced dry conditions during most of July, with much of the continent seeing rainfall and, in particular, soil moisture well below average (see below).
‘The month began with conditions already dry, following a drier-than-average June over the UK, Ireland, Italy and most of the Iberian Peninsula, in addition to a large region stretching from the northern Balkans across eastern Europe and to north-western Russia.’
It said in the lead up to July’s heatwave it’ repeatedly warned of increased fire danger due to the lack of rain and the resulting dry vegetation, combined with high temperatures’ and this has resulted in wildfire activity records in July being broken.
Since Tuesday, the so-called Landiras blaze in Gironde – near Bordeaux – has burned 15,000 acres of pine forest and forced the evacuation of almost 6,000 people.
‘The fire is extremely violent and has spread to the Landes department’ further south, home of the Landes de Gascogne regional park, the prefecture said in a statement. Local authorities of the wine-growing Gironde department said 500 firefighters were mobilised.
The prefecture warned the fire was spreading toward the A63 motorway, a major artery linking Bordeaux to Spain.
Speed limits on the highway have been lowered to 55 mph in case smoke starts to limit visibility, and a full closure could be ordered if the fire worsens and continues to spread.
The Landiras fire that ignited in July was the largest of several that have raged this year in southwest France, which like the rest of Europe has been buffeted by record drought and a series of heat waves over the past two months.
Fires were also raging on Tuesday in other parts of the country.
One broke out in the southern departments of Lozere and Aveyron, where close to 600 hectares have already burnt and where Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin is due to go later in the day.
Another fire is in the Maine et Loire department in western France, where 1,600 acres have been scorched and 500 are threatened, according to local authorities.
According to CNN, there are also fears for food production in the EU amid the heat and the war in Ukraine which is already pushing up the cost of good throughout the EU. The Joint Research Centre, the European Commission’s science service, said in a recent report that it believe production of grain maize, sunflowers and soybeans will drop by 8-9%, well below the five-year average, due to sweltering conditions.
Copernicus Senior Scientist Freja Vamborg said that ‘dry conditions from previous months combined with high temperatures and low precipitation rates seen in many areas during July may have adverse effects on agricultural production and other industries such as river transport and energy production.’
Weeks of dry weather have turned several of Europe’s major waterways into trickles, posing a headache for German factories and power plants that rely on deliveries by ship.
‘This is particularly the case for the Rhine, whose nautical bottleneck at Kaub has very low water levels but which remains navigable for ships with small drafts,’ said Tim Alexandrin, a spokesman for Germany’s Transport Ministry.
Authorities predict that water levels at Kaub will dip below the mark of 40 centimetres early on Friday and keep falling over the weekend.
While this is still higher than the record low of 27cm seen in October 2018, many large ships could struggle to safely pass the river at that spot, located roughly mid-way along the Rhine between Koblenz and Mainz.
‘The situation is quite dramatic, but not as dramatic yet as in 2018,’ said Christian Lorenz, a spokesman for the German logistics company HGK.
Due to the lack of water ships bringing salt down the river from Heilbronn to Cologne that would normally carry 2,200 metric tonnes of cargo are currently only able to transport about 600 tonnes, he said.
Four fire engines have been sent to the scene in Kent today, and crews are using hose reel jets and beaters to extinguish the flames. People living or working nearby are being advised to keep windows and doors closed as a precaution due to smoke
‘Of course we hope that shipping won’t be halted, but we saw in 2018 that when water levels got very low the gas stations suddenly had no more fuel because ships couldn’t get through,’ said Mr Lorenz.
Authorities are taking steps to shift more goods traffic onto the rail network and, if necessary, give it priority, said Mr Alexandrin, the Transport Ministry spokesman.
Meanwhile, HGK and other shipping companies are preparing for a ‘new normal’ in which low levels such as those seen this year become more common as global warming makes droughts more severe, sapping water along the length of the Rhine from the Swiss Alps to the North Sea.
‘There’s no denying climate change and the industry is adjusting to it,’ said Mr Lorenz.
In some places the Rhine was so shallow that other vessels were moored far below the quays where people walk. Signs warning people about dangerously high waters stuck out of the riverbed, and rocks lay exposed.
The resulting bottlenecks are another drag on Europe’s largest economy, which is grappling with high inflation, supply chain disruptions and soaring gas prices after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.
People walk around the remains of the church of Sant Roma de Sau as it emerges from the low waters of the Sau Reservoir, north of Barcelona, Spain
The droughts are not only affecting Germany, with Spain, southern France, Portugal and most of Italy suffering from the shortages with ministers imposing emergency water restrictions.
The European Drought Observatory said 15 per cent of the bloc is on red alert due to crops suffering from ‘severe water deficiency.’
As many as 95 French regions have brought in hosepipe bans, while 62 are at a ‘crisis level’ that only allows the use of water for essential needs.
More than 100 French towns have no running drinking water and are being supplied with special deliveries.
In Andalusia, one of Europe’s hottest and driest regions, paddle-boats and waterslides lie abandoned on the cracked bed of Vinuela reservoir which is now 87 per cent empty.
A prolonged dry spell and extreme heat made July the hottest month in Spain since at least 1961. Spanish reservoirs are at just 40 per cent of capacity on average in early August, well below the ten-year average of around 60 per cent, official data shows.
Meanwhile, a flooded Portuguese village dating back to the first century has reemerged from the depths with its stony foundations still intact as a result of the drought.
Vilarinho da Furna in Braga, northern Portugal, was intentionally submerged by the state in 1971 to build a reservoir, now bearing the same name, on the Homem River.
Every summer, the forgotten village reappears and becomes a popular attraction, with locals and tourists walking along the ruins that have been underwater for 50 years.
But this year, more of the village has been uncovered due to the sweltering heat that has suffocated Europe this summer.
Locals say that 70 per cent of the former granite houses are now visible.
The guardian of Vilarinho da Furna, António Barroso, told Renascença that: ‘Since 2009, the water has not gone down as it is now.’
The village had an unusual communitarian social system in which each family had a member on the council, known as the Junta.
The practice is believed to date back to the Visigoths and the leader of the Junta was chosen among the married men of the village, and they would serve for six months.
The Junta would discuss important local issues such as harvesting, transport, cattle herding and trapping wolves to maintain the self-sustaining community.
The Junta was also responsible for judging crimes and imposing punishments, which could lead to exclusions from Vilarinho da Furna, meaning they would not receive any of the benefits of the communitarian system.
The village used to house 300 people who were forced to relocate to neighbouring towns in 1970.
The 57 families of the Geresian town left the stones houses as they were before the water drained their properties.
There had been strong resistance to the dam among the villagers but they were unable to stop the government who offered them compensation for the forced relocation.
Since Tuesday, the so-called Landiras blaze has burned 15,000 acres of pine forest and forced the evacuation of almost 6,000 people in an area already hit last month by huge blazes. No one has been injured in the coastal area that draws huge summer tourism crowds, but 16 houses were destroyed near the village of Belin-Beliet
Visitors have to access the village via a dirt road that also leads to three river beaches in the area run by the Association of Former Inhabitants of Vilarinho da Furna (AFURNA).
During the drought, authorities have been able to clean the standing pillars and structures normally covered by the reservoir.
AFURNA charges entrance to the village during the summer weeks in order to maintain it and prevent hordes of crowds ruining the buildings.
Barroso, the 77-year-old guardian of the village, is responsible for two thousands hectares in the area.
Meanwhile wildfires also hit Montenegro where the army had to be called into extinguish a forest blaze during the heatwave.
Pictures show a Montenegrin army helicopter scooping water from an improvised pool while it helps to extinguish a forest fire, over the touristy area of Boka Bay in the city of Risan today.
A wildfire that broke out on Saturday is also still raging in the natural park of Serra da Estrela in central Portugal.
The Sameiro village near the town of Manteigas is near the site of the blaze which has spread across mountainous and forest area.