Political Economy of Increasing Drought in Europe

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The consequences of climate change, which started as a result of many human-induced factors such as industrialization, urbanization, rapid population growth, uncontrolled consumption of natural resources and deforestation, have recently been felt across Europe. The driest summer in the last 500 years was experienced in 2022, and in 2023 it was observed that the drought problem continued to increase in Europe. The report titled “Drought in Europe” published on March 16, 2023 by the European Drought Observatory, which examines the drought situation in the European continent using precipitation, humidity and satellite measurements, clearly demonstrates this.

In the report, it was stated that the winter months were characterized by less rainfall and higher temperatures than expected, that the lack of sufficient snow water in the Alps affected European countries, especially France, Italy, Spain, the UK, Ireland, Switzerland, Romania, Bulgaria and Greece, and that drought posed an alarming threat.[1]

Drought affects many areas such as agriculture, animal husbandry, water supply, energy, tourism, human health, transportation and biodiversity. Therefore, drought, which has a complex network of impacts, also has economic consequences. When the impact of drought on economic activities is analyzed, the first sector that draws attention is agriculture.  For example, the 39% decrease in olive oil production in Spain due to extreme hot and dry weather led to a decline in both European Union (EU) consumption and exports.[2] Another example is the drying up of rivers. For example, the Po River, Italy’s longest river, which stretches from the Western Alps to the Adriatic Sea, is running dry and farmers have been forced to change their crops. It has also limited the production of feed needed to ensure the sustainability of meat and milk production.

Another sector affected by the drought is energy. The continent faced an energy crisis as Europe’s access to Russian gas was disrupted due to the Russia-Ukraine war. In order to reduce the pressure of the energy crisis on gas and electricity markets, alternative energy sources such as hydroelectricity and nuclear power plants have been strengthened.  However, due to the lack of water, hydroelectricity activities have been reduced or stopped. Similarly, nuclear power plants cannot be actively used due to insufficient water for cooling the reactors and decomposing waste. For example, French energy supplier EDF decided to temporarily reduce production at its nuclear power stations in August 2022 due to high temperatures in the Rhone and Garonne rivers, which increased river temperatures and limited its ability to use river water to cool factories. As a result, the company announced a loss of €5.3 billion.[3]

The winter months are also dry in France, which could negatively affect the country’s energy production throughout the year.[4] At this point, considering that a quarter of the EU’s energy is nuclear energy and more than half of it is produced in France[5], and that 70% of France’s electricity needs are obtained from nuclear energy, it can be predicted that if the drought continues, energy prices will rise across the continent and costs in production will increase.

Another area where the drought is having an impact on the European economy is logistics. Water scarcity adversely affects the transportation of many materials, from fuel to car parts and from food to chemicals, due to the unavailability of important waterways. As a matter of fact, the Rhine River, which is an important transportation route for raw materials such as grain, chemicals, minerals, coal and oil, is running low due to high temperatures and lack of rainfall, affecting the supply chain. In fact, in August 2022, Roberto Spranzi, the director of the DTG maritime cooperative, which operates around 100 ships on the Rhine, stated that the ships were only able to use between 25% and 35% of their capacity.[6]  This not only disrupts product trade, but also delays the delivery of coal to power plants, deepening Germany’s energy crisis at a time when alternatives to Russian gas are being sought.

Moreover, many European rivers, from the Loire to the Danube, are experiencing declining water levels. This increases the financial losses of the European economy in the areas of agriculture, energy supply and transportation, and reduces the purchasing power of individuals. Due to the drought, Spain has lost €1.5 billion annually, Italy €1.4 billion annually and France €1.2 billion annually. The annual loss from drought in the EU and the UK is estimated at around €9 billion each year. In the absence of an effective policy, this figure could rise to more than €65 billion.[7] Figures show that the economic impact of drought will only deepen. It is therefore increasingly important for European countries to both conserve existing resources and develop the capabilities to cope with drought.

In fact, European countries support international agreements on climate policy, such as the Paris Agreement, to slow global warming and aim to zero greenhouse gas emissions under the European Green Deal. In 2007, Europe is aligning with the European Commission’s recommendations on the preparation of operational drought management plans to prevent and mitigate the impacts of drought on the environment, society and the economy.

On the other hand, while temporary policies such as compensating farmers’ losses and restricting water use are implemented to alleviate the periodic effects of drought, countries are developing national policies to combat the threat of drought that has become chronic. For example, French President Emmanuel Macron announced a water saving plan that includes preventing water leaks, reusing wastewater and sharing water, stating that they have created an emergency fund of 180 million euros.[8]

Germany has also established a national water strategy to guarantee drinking water supply, protect groundwater and ecosystems and ensure adequate water supply for agriculture and businesses. In addition, Germany wants to adapt its urban planning to the sponge city concept. This means that rainwater is stored where it falls, cleaned by the soil and returned to the groundwater through evaporation and infiltration.

To cope with limited water availability, the Netherlands has established an irrigation project to retain more water in the system, manage groundwater levels and develop efficient irrigation technologies.

Solar power generation is at the forefront of meeting the energy needs of Europe, which is struggling to utilize natural gas, hydroelectric and nuclear energy. Sunny weather and an increase in solar installations across the continent increased the use of solar energy by 28% compared to the previous summer.[9] Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Hungary have started to meet some of their electricity needs from solar energy.

In fact, given the extent of the damage caused and to be caused by the drought, the concrete policies of European countries do not seem to be a permanent response to the problem. If the necessary measures are not taken, if the policies implemented do not keep up with the pace of the drought or if alternatives are not created, it is likely that European integration will be the main area to be affected. Just as the energy crisis and rising inflation have led to street protests in Europe, so too will the shortage of water and food supply, rising costs and rising unemployment. Moreover, crises increase support for nationalist views in European societies and weaken commitment to European integration.

On the other hand, severe droughts may lead to disputes between countries over the allocation of resources. Countries with advantages in production and supply may use food and energy as a tool for political sanctions, as in the Russia-Ukraine War. Therefore, the sharing of resources may be considered as an existential threat and pave the way for the emergence of a conflict environment. For example, Spain, one of the most drought-affected countries on the European continent, transfers water to Portugal in accordance with the Albufeira Agreement. However, due to the extreme drought, Spain stated that they could not fully fulfill the requirements of the agreement, but backed down after a short diplomatic crisis.[10]

Although the issue between Spain and Portugal has been resolved for now, tensions in bilateral relations could escalate as countries become more vulnerable to drought. Given the number of transboundary waters in Europe, there is a risk that increasing drought will make it more difficult to sustain peace on the continent.

In conclusion, although the drought has been overshadowed by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Russian-Ukrainian War and the energy crisis, Europe is feeling the effects of the drought more and more each day. Water scarcity in Europe, coupled with increasing drought, is damaging agricultural crops, making it difficult to use hydroelectric and nuclear power plants, and slowing down trade on waterways. All this harms the economies of European countries and increases socioeconomic vulnerability.

[1] “Drought in Europe Macrh 2023”, European Comission”,, (Date of Accession: 03.04.2022).

[2] “Agriculture and rural development”, European Commission,, (Date of Accession: 03.04.2022).

[3] Julia Kollewe, “EDF Cuts Output at Nuclear Power Plants as French Rivers Get too Warm”, The Guardian,, (Date of Accession: 03.04.2022).

[4] Benjamin Wehrmann, “Catastrophic” Winter Drought in France Bodes Ill for Europe’s Power Production in 2023”, Clean Energy War,, (Date of Accession: 03.04.2022).

[5] “Macron Unveils France’s Plan to Share, Reuse and Save Water in the Face of Drought”, Euronews,, (Date of Accession: 04.04.2022).

[6] “Rhıne’s Low Water Levels Hıt German Shıppıng, Mınıster Touts Dredgıng”, Deutsche Welle,, (Date of Accession: 04.04.2022).

[7] “Drought in Numbers 2022”, United Nations,, (Date of Accession: 04.04.2022).

[8] “Macron Unveils France’s…”, op.cit.

[9] “Solar Power Generation Hits EU Record in Energy Crisis”, Financial Times,, (Date of Accession: 04.04.2022).

[10] “İspanya Portekiz’e Su Kesmemeyi Kabul Etti”, The Portugal News,, (Date of Accession: 04.04.2022).

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