After emerging from one of the driest summers in years, which was further exacerbated by heatwaves across the continent in 2022, the winter season would have normally provided an opportunity to replenish water levels across Europe. However, much of the continent experienced an abnormally dry and warmer-than-normal winter. As a result, rains and snowfall were not at the levels needed to sufficiently replenish water reserves in the region.
The lack of water had a wide-ranging impact on manufacturing and transportation activities in parts of the region, disrupting operations in steel making, chemicals, agriculture, and energy generation. March and the start of April provided some short-term relief, but if drier conditions and warmer than normal temperatures return in the upcoming summer months, severe drought is likely to set back in, and existing disruptions to regional supply chains would be exacerbated further.
Warm and dry winter did not improve drought conditions in Europe
Traditionally, winter snowfall accumulation helps to replenish groundwater reserves in the spring. Instead, the warmer and drier-than-normal winter further exacerbated the already dry conditions on the continent as both rain and snowfall totals remained well below normal across most of the region. The most noteworthy area is the Alps, where snow totals have been three to six feet (90 to 180 cm) below normal.
The Alps play a crucial role in accumulating and supplying water to much of the continent because moisture from the mountains feeds into the headwaters of the major regional rivers the Rhine, Danube, Po, and Rhone. The mountain water also provides crop irrigation, fresh water for people and livestock, and cooling needs for energy facilities. As of early April, the snow-water equivalent, a metric used to measure the amount of water in the snowpack within the Alps, was at its second-lowest level in the past 18 years. Consequently, Europe cannot afford any extended periods of heat and dryness this summer, and frequent rains will be needed to keep up with moisture requirements.
Drought conditions threaten to disrupt several supply chain sectors
The drought has affected various supply chain sectors in Europe since the beginning of last summer, with the chemicals sector being among the ones most at risk of operational disruptions. Chemicals are transported mainly by river barges, so low water levels along the region’s key waterways can hamper the movement of chemical goods. Last summer, low water levels on the Rhine forced chemical producers to either reduce the amount of product and feedstock they were trying to transport to facilities along the river, or rely more heavily on trucks, cargo trains and other transport modes.
At the Kaub gauge of the Rhine River, a critical waypoint in western Germany, water levels in early March 2023 were recorded to be the lowest since 2017 for this time of year. However, water levels have significantly increased in recent weeks due to more abundant rain and currently are above five-year average levels. Nevertheless, due to the chemicals industry dependency on river transport, limits on loading capacity and rising costs due to surcharges could severely impact production.
Low water levels exacerbated by the winter drought also disrupted some the metal manufacturing industry. In the agriculture sector, farmers across Europe have been preparing for a potentially challenging growing season in 2023.
The winter drought could also disrupt regional power generation, particularly in France, where hydropower and nuclear power plants depend on water to generate a large part of the country’s energy. Last year, France’s hottest and second driest year on record, hydropower generation fell to the lowest level in almost 50 years, and hydro output could again be curtailed if the lack of consistent rain persists into late spring and summer.
Impacts on hydro power generation have already been confirmed in Italy’s Trentino region and in northern Europe, where some of Europe’s biggest reserves are located. In France, a lack of water could also reduce nuclear power output as a steady supply of water is needed to cool the reactors at the country’s more than 50 nuclear power plants.