August 16, 2022

Europeans Act to Stem Drought Damage

PARIS — Suffering from a record-shattering drought, European nations started preparing emergency plans this week to conserve water and provide millions of euros in aid to farmers, including the deployment of soldiers to deliver hay for cattle grazing on sun-baked soil.

On Thursday, President Nicolas Sarkozy toured a cattle farm in western France to announce an aid package and the service of soldiers and national trains to deliver fodder for livestock farmers. They are comparing the warm temperatures to the heat wave in the summer of 2003, when more than 10,000 people died in Europe.

The aid, which officials said could reach €1 billion, or more than $1.4 billion, also includes a year deferment on paying back government farm loans, a land-tax exemption, and the development of a five-year plan to improve water reserves and management.

“It is essentially a cash flow problem,” Mr. Sarkozy said in his tour of a farm in Montemboeuf. “We will find you room to maneuver.”

Farmers are facing difficult conditions. Before rainstorms last week, the period from March to May in France was the driest in the previous 50 years and the warmest since 1900, according to Météo France, the public weather service.

Records have also fallen in England, where the spring has been the driest since 1910 and the warmest since 1659. In Germany, the weather service said the drought was the worst since the nation started measuring rain in 1893.

Friedrich-Wilhelm Gerstengarbe, a scientist and assistant director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, said he considered global warming a factor in a changing pattern of extreme weather conditions of drought, storms, and floods.

“The stable climate we had for 100 years before is now changing to an unstable one,” he said. “The question is, what kind of plans will nations use in the next decade if droughts increase?”

This year’s drought is already starting to have a cascading effect, from a 13 percent decline in the French wheat crop that could lead to an extra five cents for a daily baguette to the early slaughter of cattle because parched grazing lands are brown with dead grass.

A plunge in the rapeseed harvest in Germany, which produces about a quarter of the Europe Union’s crop, is expected to depress biodiesel production.

In some parts of the Netherlands, the river levels have fallen to a 90-year low and dikes are being monitored for risks of drying out and cracking.

Wheat and barley are wilting in England, which will have an effect on beer production.

A few industries have remained immune to the drought. Salt harvesters in Guérande, in western France, have gathered the salt almost two months earlier then usual because of the dry conditions.

The dearth of rain has not affected the French wine industry so far. The deep roots of grave vines extend meters into the ground, tapping water reserves longer then other crops. In Burgundy and Bordeaux, for example, grape development is about three weeks ahead of schedule because of warm weather, according to regional trade associations.

“We have no worries about the weather, at least for the moment,” said Eve Gueydon, who heads technical communications at the Bureau Interprofessionnel des Vins de Bourgogne, the trade association for Burgundy wines. “Other dry years have produced great vintages.”

But for other farmers, like Ralf Schaab, who runs Hof Erbenheim, a fruit and vegetable farm in Germany, the soil remains parched even after some rain fell in early June.

“Normally, we have no artificial irrigation because we have very good soil that can store a lot of water,” Mr. Schaab said. “So it’s not such a big problem if it does not rain for four to six weeks. But eventually good soil reaches its limits and that exactly was the case after a three-month dry spell.”

In Europe’s capitals, the authorities are considering conservation and relief measures, in particular for livestock producers. The payment of cattle subsidies to farmers will be advanced to October from December, said Roger Waite, a spokesman for the European Commission. He said a working group of the beef industry had been formed to develop relief measures this summer.

“From what we’ve seen, the lack of rainfall is most significant in the Netherlands, Belgium, France and areas of Spain, Germany and England,” Mr. Waite said. “It varies from crop to crop. Above all, the livestock will be the worst hit, especially cattle because of the cost of feed. The trouble is that if grass doesn’t grow, the farmer has to provide extra feed and they are hit with an unexpected cost.”

In England, farmers, government officials and utility companies plan to meet this week to evaluate the drought’s impact on southern and eastern England. Caroline Spelman, the environment secretary, has commissioned a report on the effect on food production and water and power supplies.

France has also set up a monitoring committee for its energy industry, as the authorities are concerned about the impact on electricity supplies and the control of river flows. France is home to more than 50 nuclear power plants, which generate most of its electricity and use river water to cool their systems.

The Energy Ministry has insisted that the drought does not present a safety problem. But critics recall that during the hot summer in 2003, low river waters forced the government to turn off several nuclear plants.

Eric Pfanner contributed from Paris, and Stefan Pauly from Berlin.

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