Tthe scenes are rare enough in midsummer; in early March, they are unprecedented. Lac de Montbel in the southwest France is more than 80% empty, the local sailing club’s boats stranded on its parched brown shores.

In North Italy, tourists can walk to the small island of San Biagio, normally only accessible by boat, from the shores of Lake Garda, where the water level is 70cm (27in) lower than average. The Alps have had 63% less snow than usual.

IN Germanyshallow waters on the Rhine are already disrupting barge traffic, forcing boats bound for central Europe to load at half capacity, and in Catalonia, now short of water for three years, Barcelona has stopped watering its parks.

After that driest summer in 500 yearsmuch of Europe is in the grip of a winter drought driven by climate degradation that is prompting growing concern among governments about water security for homes, farmers and factories across the continent.

A study was published in January of the Graz University of Technology in Austria, whose researchers used satellite data to analyze groundwater reserves, concluded that Europe has been in drought since 1918 and that its water situation was now “very precarious”.

Torsten Mayer-Gürr, one of the researchers, said: “I would never have imagined that water would be a problem here in Europe, especially in Germany or Austria. We are actually getting problems with the water supply here. We have to think about this.”

The World Weather Attribution service said last year that droughts in the northern hemisphere were at least 20 times more likely due to human-caused climate change, warning that such extreme periods would become increasingly common with global warming.

Andrea Toreti, senior researcher at European Dry Observatory, said: “What is unusual is the recurrence of these events, as we already experienced a severe to extreme drought a year ago, and another in 2018.

“It is clear that in some parts of Europe the lack of rainfall and the current deficit is such that it will not be easy for water levels to recover before the start of summer,” Toreti told Euronews. Experts have said that the coming months will be crucial.

A map over current drought in Europe from the EU’s Copernicus program shows warnings of low rainfall or soil moisture in areas of northern and southern Spain, northern Italy and southern Germany, with almost all of France affected.

France recently recorded 32 days without significant precipitation, the longest period since records began in 1959, and state forecasters Météo-France has said little or no precipitation is expected until at least the end of the month.

Simon Mitelberger, a climatologist, said about 75% less rain had fallen over France last month than usual for February, continuing a year-long trend. Nine of the past 12 months had seen rainfall up to 85% below normal, he told France Info news.

France’s CNRS The scientific research center said that by comparing droughts before 1945 and since 1945, it had determined that last summer’s drought was caused by anthropogenic climate change and this winter showed “the same characteristics”.

Local authorities in all of the country’s seven major river basins have been ordered to start enforcing water restrictions as the government works on an emergency plan to deal with a shortage it has said will inevitably lead to “water scarcity problems” this year.

Ecological transition minister Christophe Béchu warned that France would have to cope with up to 40% less water in the coming years, adding that the country was already in a “state of readiness” and restrictions in some areas were fully justified.

“The situation is more serious than this time last year,” Béchu said. People in four southern departments have been prevented from filling swimming pools or washing their cars, while farmers must cut their water consumption by up to half.

Repeating the terms he used to describe the energy crisis triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, French President Emmanuel Macron called for a “sobriety plan” to save water and warned that the “time of abundance” had arrived final.

“We all have to be careful,” he said. Among the government’s plans are modernizing agricultural irrigation, which accounts for up to 80% of consumption in the summer, increasing wastewater recycling and reducing losses due to leakage.

All Spain has been in drought since January 2022, but water supplies in Catalonia have fallen so low that authorities this week introduced laws including a 40% reduction in water used for agriculture, a 15% reduction for industrial use and a reduction in the average daily supply per inhabitants from 250 liters to 230 liters.

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Rubén del Campo, spokesperson for the State Meteorological Authority Ameet, said the situation showed no signs of improving in the coming months. The worst affected areas were the northern third of the country and parts of Andalusia and southern Castilla-La Mancha, he said.

When asked about the role of global warming, Del Campo said that although drought has always been a natural phenomenon due to Spain’s geographical location, a change has been seen in recent decades.

“We have noticed that the drought in southern Spain lasts longer and that when the rains come they are shorter but more intense,” he said. “It is poorly distributed. When the rains are heavy, they are less useful for filling reservoirs and watering the fields, which need milder rains.”

In January, Spain’s Environment Minister Teresa Ribera, warned of the inescapable reality of the climate emergencyand said the country must be prepared for “much longer cycles of extreme drought and periods of incredibly severe flooding”.

The average amount of water available had fallen by 12% since 1980, Ribera noted, and projections indicated a further decline of between 14% and 40% by 2050. “We cannot depend solely on rain to guarantee the availability of drinking water or water for economic use,” she said.

Spain’s Socialist-led government approved in January a €23bn (£20bn) plan to protect and improve water supplies by investing in areas including infrastructure, water treatment and purification, irrigation modernization and flood risk management.

The island of San Biagio in Lake Garda is now accessible on foot due to lake levels falling by 70 cm.
The island of San Biagio in Lake Garda, Italy, now accessible by foot due to lake levels falling by 70 cm. Photo: Alex Fraser/Reuters

The government in Italy is reportedly preparing to create a task force including a “super commissioner” and officials from several ministries to address the effects of severe drought, which is already beginning to affect agriculture.

Water levels in the Po, the country’s longest river that feeds several northern and central regions, were 61% below the February norm. While recent rainfall has eased pressure, the Environment and Energy Security Minister, Gilberto Pichetto, warned last week that water rationing may be required in some areas.

“The problem of drought is serious,” he told Corriere della Sera. “We have only had half the average amount of snow. We found ourselves with waterways, lakes and reservoirs in a very critical state and hydropower basins in extreme difficulty.”

Italy’s National Research Council (CNR) said last month that rainfall in the north was 40% below average in 2022, adding that the absence of rainfall since early 2023 had been “significant”.

A leading meteorologist, Luca Mercalli, said Italy would only avoid a repeat of last summer’s extreme drought if there was abundant rainfall in the spring. “It’s the last hope,” he said. “If we don’t have any spring rain for two years in a row, it would be the first time this has happened.”

In central and northern Europe, the lack of precipitation has so far mainly been seen in alpine areas where winter tourists have met. snow-free ski slopes.

In the state of Tyrol, Austriafor example the cities of Landeck and Reutte have measured their driest winter ever, while in parts of Switzerland municipalities have once again had to urge citizens to conserve water, having already done so this summer.

But scientists warn that the effects of the winter drought will most likely be felt Germany and Austria’s lower regions in the coming months: less snow during the winter means less meltwater to feed the rivers in central Europe during the warmer months.

“Today’s snow deficit could potentially become tomorrow’s summer drought,” says Manuela Brunner, professor of hydrology and climate change at Zurich’s ETH University.

Meteorologist Josef Eitzinger, of the Vienna Institute of Meteorology and Climatology, told the dpa news agency: “If the spring weather is similar to that of 2022, the dryness will increase significantly.” He pointed to historically low water levels at Lake Neusiedl, an important water source on the border between Austria and Hungary.