Civilizations throughout history have depended on rivers and streams to serve as as shipping and transportation routes, to irrigate crops, to harness energy, and to supply drinking water. Now they are drying up. Rivers are receding. Canals and reservoirs are sitting empty.
The economic impact of accelerating climate change is becoming increasingly critical. Europe’s rivers and canals are venues for more than one ton of freight annually for each EU resident and contribute around $80 billion to the region’s economy, just as a mode of transport alone.
The Rhine, a centuries-old key player in the German, Dutch and Swiss economies, has threatened to become virtually impassable in places, blocking large shipments of diesel and coal. The Danube, which makes its way 1,800 miles through central Europe to the Black Sea, is experiencing low water as well, hampering grain shipments and other trade.
Across Europe, transport is just one of the elements of river-based commerce that’s been affected by climate change and related conditions. France’s power crisis has worsened because the Rhone and Garonne are too warm to effectively cool nuclear reactors, and Italy has declared that approximately a third of its agricultural production, one of the largest in the EU, is at risk from droughts and poor water infrastructure. Many mainstays of local economies, from wine production to riverboat tourism, are being negatively affected.
While disruptions to waterways would be a challenge even at the best of times, the region is already on the brink of recession as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine adds to inflation by restricting food and energy supplies. The situation — only four years after a historic halt to Rhine shipping — adds urgency to European Union efforts to make inland shipping more resilient.
Human habitation and exploitation are also putting strains on river systems. Around 58 million people live in the Rhine area, and its water is used for drinking, irrigation, manufacturing, and power generation. A shortage of water in Europe’s river basins affects as much as a quarter of the region’s territory, according to the European Environment Agency.
The conditions that have dried up Europe’s rivers are not a recent phenomenon or the result of one or two bad seasons. They are part of a long-running trend that has reached the point where the soil is so parched that it swallows up most initial rainfalls. Subsequent rains are able to flow into streams and rivers only after the soil has absorbed sufficient moisture.
The Rhine is a key component of Europe’s network of inland waterways. It is connected to the Danube by canal and runs about 800 miles through Swiss and German industrial zones before emptying into the North Sea at the busy port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands.
The Rhine near Frankfurt fell below 40cm in August 2022. Many places on the river were too shallow even for empty vessels.
For many companies, there is no workable alternative to the Rhine for transport purposes. Germany’s rail network is plagued with congestion. Shipping by road is not a practical solution. More than 110 trucks are needed to carry the same load as an average barge, and Germany is currently faced with a shortage of as many as 80,000 truck drivers , a problem made more critical as Ukrainians return home to fight the Russian invasion.
Added to rising gas prices as Germany terminates imports from Russia, the combination represents a threat to inland factories. If rivers becomes increasingly unpredictable, these facilities lose a competitive edge.
One economist has predicted that these conditions could negatively affect the region’s economies far worse than the 5 billion-euro ($5.1 billion) hit caused by Rhine transit issues in 2018. The Rhine is currently lower than it was in the summer of year in 2018, when low-water during the autumn shaved some 0.4% off total German output, according to a study by the Kiel Institute for the World Economy.
The climate crisis is expected to intensify. Europe’s main river systems are replenished considerably by spring and summer runoff from Alpine glaciers, but those ice flows are shrinking. Since the 1800s, the Alpine region has recorded approximately two degrees of warming, which is about double the global average, according to the European Environment Agency.
This process adds a new dimension to warming. Bare rock absorbs heat from the sun instead of reflecting it as glaciers do, and this accelerates the heating process. Scientists expect Alpine ice cover to decrease by half by 2050 and predict that almost all glaciers will have disappeared by the end of this century.
Asian nations are experiencing comparable crises. The summer has seen water levels drop in the Yangtze, that continent’s longest river, diminishing the generation of electricity at important hydroelectric plants. Major cities, including Shanghai, have imposed restrictions on power use. Toyota Motor Corporation has closed factories, as has Contemporary Amperex Technology, the leading manufacturer of batteries for electric vehicles. Tesla has raised alarms about supply chain disruptions.
In the United States, drought conditions have affected the Colorado River to the point where drastic water cuts have been imposed in Arizona and Nevada. The Colorado supplies water for 40 million people between Denver and Los Angeles and, along with its tributaries, irrigates about 4.5 acres of land and generates about $1.4 trillion in economic and agricultural benefits.
One side effect of the emptying of some rivers in the Southwest U.S.A. is the uncovering of dead bodies, as well as dinosaur footprints that have been concealed for perhaps millions of years. Perhaps these bizarre discoveries carry a message from the past.
Several factors are contributing to the lack of water in global waterways. Prolonged drought is not an unusual condition in many regions, even in the best of seasons. Another result of higher global temperatures is increased evaporation. Moisture is literally being sucked from the land surface, and that includes the bodies of water.
A recurring factor is the La Nina phenomenon, which is a cooling of the equatorial Pacific Ocean. This results in dramatic and often contradictory changes in global weather patterns, with drenching rain in some areas and parching drought in others. There have been La Ninas in 2021 and 2022, and 2023 is likely to bring another
The major contributor to the drying out of rivers and streams, however, is climate change and the record-breaking heat waves it brings. Mountain snow has been described as “nature’s reservoir,” and rising temperatures around the planet have resulted in dramatically reduced snowfalls and snow accumulation in mountain ranges. As a result, spring and summer melts are supplying less water to nearby streams.
The consequences of climate change and associated global warming are evidenced in social, political, and economic terms. The economic aspects alone are clearly cause for concern.