lakebed at the depleted Montbel Reservoir in Leran France
Photograph: Matthieu Rondel/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Europe Is Drying Up

After unusually low amounts of rain and snow this winter, the continent faces a severe water shortage.

The drought in parts of France is so bad right now that some authorities have banned new home-building projects—for the next four years. Despite a severe housing shortage in France, new homes just aren’t worth the drain on water resources that construction, and eventual new residents, would cause, say nine communes in the south of the country. 

It’s just one of many signs that Europe is running dry. “What we are looking at is something like a multiyear drought,” says Rohini Kumar of the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Germany. Unusually low rainfall and snowfall was recorded this winter not just in France but also in the UK, Ireland, Switzerland, and parts of Italy and Germany. The current predicament follows European droughts in 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2022.

Last summer, drought exacerbated by record temperatures around the continent was in the headlines. The subsequent dry winter has meant that many aquifers—places underground that retain water—and surface reservoirs have not had a chance to recover. Now, summer beckons once again, and experts who spoke to WIRED are worried that a severe water shortage could threaten lives, industry, and biodiversity in a big way.

The European Drought Observatory tracks indicators of drought across the continent, including from satellite measurements, and suggests that vast regions are far drier than they should be. “Honestly, all over Central Europe, this issue, it’s a widespread problem,” says Carmelo Cammalleri at the Polytechnic University of Milan.

He estimates that reservoirs in France and northern Italy are about 40 to 50 percent lower than they should be. The longest river in Italy, the Po, is 60 percent below its normal levels. Not only that, there is roughly half the usual snow on the Alps than would be expected for this time of year. That’s a huge problem, because much of Central Europe relies on meltwater from these famous mountains every spring. “The Alps are known as the water towers of Europe for a reason,” says Cammalleri.

France has just experienced its driest winter for 60 years. In some places, you can find extreme examples of how people have been affected. Take the village of Coucouron in the south of the country, where a truck has had to deliver drinking water up to 10 times a day since July—without any hiatus during the supposedly wetter months.

In the UK, also, many rivers are at record lows. And look to the Rhine, an arterial river that rises in the Alps and flows through multiple countries toward the North Sea. It fell considerably last year, causing massive headaches for barges that use it to transport goods. Right now, the river level is 1 to 2 meters below average for this time of year, according to some estimates. Lucie Fahrner, a spokeswoman for the Central Commission for the Navigation of the Rhine, denies that the river level is low at present, despite its lower-than-average levels, adding that various measures to help shipping cope with drought in the future are currently being evaluated. 

What happens during the next few months will really matter. Abundant rainfall could ease the situation and stave off the worst-case scenario. But Europe needs a lot. “We’re talking about a sea, a sea’s worth of water,” says Hannah Cloke at the University of Reading in the UK. In terms of volume, hundreds of millions of liters of rain would have to fall across the continent to fill the deficit, she estimates. It would have to amount to higher-than-average rainfall for France and certain other places, including parts of the UK. The chances of that are, unfortunately, not high.

The UK’s weather agency, the Met Office, estimates there’s a 10 percent chance of a wetter-than-average March, April, and May. Conversely, there’s a 30 percent chance that this period will be drier than average—and that is 1.5 times the normal chance at this time of year. The Met Office stresses that this is a “broad outlook,” and there might still be patches of very wet weather even if it remains dry overall.

Any rain that does fall also has to fall in the right way and in the right places. “There’s always this chance that if we do get it all in two days, we see some very serious floods,” says Cloke. “What we want is to see sustained, reasonably gentle rain over the next few months.” 

Another important factor is how hot it gets this summer, says Cammalleri. Heat waves push up water consumption and increase evaporation rates. He indicates that European forecasts do not suggest that temperatures will be quite as blisteringly hot as last year—though there is some uncertainty there too.

Because the chances of drought this year are non-negligible—to put it mildly—experts who spoke to WIRED advised preparing now to avert the worst effects of a dry summer. Curtailing 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 hosepipe ban introduced last summer has remained in place all winter in the southwestern county of Cornwall and part of neighboring Devon. 

In Catalonia in northeastern Spain, new water-use restrictions have just been introduced—farms must cut consumption by 40 percent and industry must cut by 15 percent. Cleaning streets with drinkable water is no longer allowed. And in Switzerland, some local authorities are distributing leaflets asking residents not to waste water. “We should prepare for the worst,” says Kumar. 

In recent years, various countries including Switzerland have attempted to protect their water sources—by covering glaciers and mountain snow with giant sheets that reflect the sun. This can be effective in small areas but, in terms of ensuring water resources for many millions of people, it may not be a sustainable option, suggests Manuela Brunner of ETH Zurich and the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research in Davos, Switzerland.

Looking to the medium and long term, Brunner argues that we are witnessing a shift in consciousness regarding drought in Europe, with Switzerland, for example, on the cusp of setting up a countrywide system for drought detection and notification. “This is kind of a big step, from not talking about drought warnings to having a national drought-warning platform,” she says. The service is due to be operational from 2025.

Countries also need to get a grip on their leaky pipework—roughly a quarter of drinking water in Europe is lost this way. We might all be drinking more recycled wastewater soon too. Researchers in Barcelona recently evaluated the safety of wastewater that would ordinarily be pumped into the sea. In a paper published this month, they explain that once chemically treated and diluted, the water appeared safe for human consumption. They suggest that doing this could help to supply Barcelona with water during severe droughts.

Big changes are inevitable, says Cammalleri: “Adapting to this kind of drought cannot really be solved with short-term action.” And although anthropogenic climate change is not the only factor behind Europe’s ongoing drought—natural variation in water levels also plays a role—increasingly high temperatures each summer will make the situation worse. Brunner’s advice on this point is encapsulated in just three words: “Stop climate change.”