Europe Begins to Run Short of Water

Sunday, 23 January 2011 10:08 By Pavol Stracansky, Inter Press Service | Report | name.

Europe Begins to Run Short of Water
Prague, Czech Republic. (Photo: jamtea)

Prague - Half of the Czech Republic’s population could face water shortages because of climate change, a top climate change expert has warned.

The country has become one of the driest in the EU, according to local media, and climatologists say the land, and crucial underground water supplies, are drying up.

Professor Michal Marek, head of the EU-funded CzechGlobe climate change research project, told IPS: "The Czech Republic is already seeing the effects of climate change in more frequent extreme weather events and changes in biodiversity.

"But possibly the most important change is in the increasing drying out of the landscape as drier periods get longer and are followed by bursts of intense rainfall which the dry soil cannot absorb. This has a very significant effect on underground water supplies."

Climatologists and meteorologists in central Europe have said that the region is seeing more and more extreme weather including long periods of dry and hot weather in the summer, severe flooding and bitter winter weather.

While not all parts of central and Eastern Europe will necessarily have the same problems as the Czech Republic with underground water supplies because of local geological conditions and other factors, heavy rains falling on ground dried out by long periods of hot weather and unable to absorb water can increase the risk of flooding.

Poland, The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Austria and Germany have all been hit by devastating floods in the last two years.

Summer and winter temperature records have also regularly been broken over the last decade.

Weathermen in Slovakia have begun speculating that weather ‘zones’ which cover the region are moving steadily north: that the climate seen typically in northern Italy – including long, hot, dry summers and bursts of heavy rains - will move a few hundred kilometres north to cover much of Austria, Slovakia and parts of the Czech Republic.

In turn the climate associated with those countries will move and bring with it different weather to parts of Germany and Poland.

With these changes rainfall patterns will also be different and in the Czech Republic, hydrologists say that such changes are already being observed.

Climatologists warn that such change could pose a dramatic problem for the country’s water resources.

In 2006 the Czech Hydrometeorological Institute said research indicated that by the middle of this century some of the country’s rivers could have dried out completely.

Some local ecological groups say that by 2050 there may not be enough water to meet the population’s basic needs.

Some Czech towns highly dependent on underground sources for water supplies say that they are already feeling the effects of depleted resources.

In towns in the southwest of the country residents and local officials say that in recent years they have been faced with water shortages after just a few weeks of dry weather, and some smaller settlements have to rely on water brought in from other parts of the country.

The Czech Hydrometeorological Institute, which monitors underground water sources, has identified areas across the north and south of the country which are also suffering from falling underground water levels.

Local firms drilling outdoor wells for homes have said that 30 years ago they would not need to drill more than eight metres into the ground to find water, but that now they regularly need to go to depths of 30 metres.

While experts say that water levels in underground water sources depend on a variety of factors including local geological conditions and other water flows, rainfall plays a significant role in replenishing underground supplies.

"It is one factor affecting underground supply of water but it is terribly important," said Professor Marek.

Hydrologists say that there has been a marked change in rainfall patterns in recent years with overall rainfall levels being similar to the long-term past but precipitation being less frequent and, therefore, more intense.

Anna Hrabankova, a hydrologist at the T. G. Masaryk Water Research Institute in Prague, told IPS: "Climate change is a reality. Rainfall is spread differently throughout the year now. The rhythms of rainfall here have changed."

The Czech Republic, like neighbouring Poland and Slovakia, suffered severe flooding nationwide last year. It was the country’s third period of devastating floods over the last 13 years.

Climate change experts say that rising global temperatures will, in some places, lead to more intense rainfall over short periods.

"Extreme weather, such as flooding and big summer storms, is becoming more frequent and this, I think, is a sign of the effects of climate change in the Czech Republic," Professor Marek told IPS.

The situation with underground water sources in the Czech Republic is unlikely to improve in the near future. The Czech Hydrometeorological Institute’s climate change department is predicting more weather extremes in the coming years with longer periods of hot weather followed by sudden heavy rainfall.

Professor Marek said that he was pessimistic about the future effects of climate change on the country, especially water supplies.

A report in Czech media this week claimed that 50 percent of Czechs – the proportion of the population reliant on underground water supplies – were facing water shortages because of falling underground water levels.

Some hydrologists questioned the claim as being alarmist but Professor Marek told IPS: "I absolutely agree with this figure. It is completely realistic from my point of view, even though it would, of course, be a terrible situation.

"Problems with water supplies will only get worse and will be the single biggest problem posed by climate change to affect the Czech Republic in the future, worse than changes to biodiversity or anything else."

Ecological groups such as the Czech branch of Friends of the Earth, say that measures must be taken to ensure that water is not lost, such as reversing river courses which, over decades, have been artificially straightened and has left them less able to retain water.

Professor Marek added: "The solution is landscape planning to prevent water running off the land such as changing the use of land, agricultural practices and natural features that help retain water." 

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Last modified on Sunday, 23 January 2011 10:35