24 August 2022

Droughts and forests fires: Europe’s new climate security reality

Europe is now firmly in the grip of a climate change-fueled crisis, the repercussions of which go beyond simple economic damage and have started to tear at the seams of European security. A prolonged heatwave which resulted in temperatures passing 40 degrees in the United Kingdom for the first time, and prolonged periods of intense heat in Spain and Southern France, has fueled a severe drought in many parts of Europe, leading to famous rivers such as the Po and Rhine drying up entirely in some areas, and to forest fires in countries bordering the Mediterranean spreading out of control.

These extended periods of warmth punctuated by torrential downpours have already led to large-scale economic damage and the loss of life, as farmers are unable to grow crops and cities are left flooded. They are also expected to become a permanent fixture of the European climate. Experts have predicted that in the coming years the likelihood of these extreme weather events occurring will increase exponentially, placing greater stress on government services and putting the safety and well-being of all at risk. To respond Europe must not only raise their level of ambition with regards to emissions reduction, but further adapt themselves for to a more unstable reality.

Drying of the Po and Mounting Food Insecurity

The consequences of such a prolonged drought have truly manifested themselves in the Po river valley in Italy, the region, which accounts for 40% of Italy’s agricultural output, is facing a historic drought the likes of which they have not seen since 1952. The remains of a tank from World War II and the ruins of medieval cities are now freely on display due to the low water level of the Po River. While the appearance of such structures may present themselves as interesting occurrences for those living nearby, multiple municipalities in Northern Italy have raised concern over their ability to source drinking water as the river that many installations have relied upon in the past have dried up. Farmers are also concerned over their ability to bring their crops to market, they either lack water to ensure a good harvest, or experience crop failures due to the increased salinity of the water that they pump out of the ground. Drought has even affected local industry, as they have been unable to secure a stable water supply needed to produce chemicals and other goods and must instead cut back on productivity.

This raises the prospect of a specter looming over daily life in the coming years of Europe, this being one of prioritization. With limited water resources States will increasingly make tough calls on which sectors of society have water access priority in case of shortages. It will be a tough balancing act ensuring agricultural or industrial output with personal consumption remain unaffected in the coming years. Such irregularities in food production could bring already high food prices further up, as shortages of food staples such as grains and vegetables threaten the food security of Europeans across the continent.

Should personal consumption be prioritized above the needs of businesses, and what rights do farmers have to ensure food supply? How will governments in Europe deal with any potential fallout or instability accompanied by cuts or economic downturns? Such kind of questions will increasingly feature the agenda of European governments.

A Europe in Flames

Forest fires are not uncommon in Europe, especially in the countries located at the Mediterranean. But the scale with which these fires have griped Europe this summer has been unprecedented. Data suggests that an area of land a fifth the size of Belgium has been left devastated in the wake of these fires, with emphasis placed on the forests of the Gironde in France. Such increases in the rate of forest fires also bode ill for the countries of Northern Europe, for while the problem appears for the moment to be one contained solely to the South, boreal forests in the North of Europe are far more at risk to forest fires due to uneven rises in average global temperatures.

The human cost has become increasingly apparent, as, for instance, thousands have been evacuated from at-risk areas in France and Greece, and passengers in rail lines in Spain have experienced severe burns when their train was rapidly engulfed by flames from a fire.

The rate of deterioration calls for the rapid intervention if the situation is to be stabilized. The EU has already pledged large sums for the purchase of more planes with firefighting capabilities, and the Elysée in Paris has also raised the amount of funds available and pledged a greater degree of support for the firefighters themselves.

But such costly initiatives, while appearing grand on paper, may not present Europe with the long-term approaches needed to prevent and combat escalating fires. Instead many Municipalities have begun looking at alternative and local solutions to combatting fires. One prominent example, is the use of livestock grazing in areas of Catalonia in removing dry vegetation so as to create fire breaks that decrease the likelihood of fire spreading uncontrolled. This is done as a supplement to existing initiatives using heavy machinery to clear cut areas and investing in a greater number of firefighters in an effort to control these fires. It builds on past practices done in centuries prior that have been rediscovered as a cheap and effect tool that can be implemented on a local level. But while such initiatives show promise, it has also made clear the complexity of factors that lay the ground for fires and how there is no clear silver bullet to combatting them, especially considering that over 84% of forest fires are man-made, no policy or action can take account for or prevent human actions.

A Look towards the Future

The surprise with which this crisis has taken governments across Europe bodes ill for the future economic and political stability of the continent. Climate models predict that these intense periods of drought, punctuated by periodic downpours will begin to occur more frequently in the future. Failure to act or create contingency plans in the face of these disasters could lead to rising food insecurity as crops more frequently fail, economic downturns as businesses are unable to retain high levels of productivity, and rising death tolls as heatwaves and forest fires continue to ravage the continent.

By Emil Marc Havstrup. Intern at the Planetary Security Initiative
Photo credit: Pablo Elorza/ Flickr