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European Agriculture Impacted by Drought and Water Scarcity

We live on a water planet, but climate change is causing water scarcity around the globe. This came into sharp relief in Cape Town, South Africa, which was very nearly the first city on the planet to run out of water. Strict water-use restrictions averted this tragedy — Cape Town citizens were restricted to only 50 liters of water per household per day. For comparison, the average California home uses more than 300 liters of water a day.

It isn’t just residential water sources that are at risk. Drought and water scarcity are impacting the agricultural industry in Europe, and farmers may need to change their tactics to adapt to the changing climate.

The Growing Threat of Droughts

Droughts are natural parts of the climate in many areas. There’s a dry season, often followed by a rainy season, and the cycle continues like that once or twice a year. But climate change and global warming are swiftly making these drought seasons worse. In 2012, a massive drought affected 81 percent of the continental United States and caused more than $30 billion in damages.

Extended dry periods leave lands bereft of moisture. It’s harder for these dry soils to absorb moisture once the rain starts falling again, increasing the risk of flooding. The rising number of droughts in the European Union is directly affecting the agricultural industry. During 2018, abnormally high temperatures and a lack of rainfall caused crop failures across Europe, threatening many farmers in the area with bankruptcy. Sweden, for example, had only received 12 percent of its normal annual rainfall — and the country was ravaged with wildfires as a result of these extensive droughts.

Droughts and a lack of rainfall aren’t the only things affecting the agricultural industry in Europe. Water scarcity and food imports are both becoming increasingly problematic.

A Lack of Water

We live on a planet that is 70 percent water, making it look blue from orbit. Unfortunately, only 3 percent of that water is drinkable, with the other 97 percent making up the planet’s saltwater oceans. Of the remaining 3 percent, we only have access to one-third of that water. The rest remains frozen in the planet’s polar ice caps. Agriculture takes up more than 70 percent of our collective annual freshwater use. Water scarcity could make it impossible for the agricultural industry to feed the world.

This is a growing threat for farmers in Europe. Nearly 40 percent of the country’s water used for agriculture is sourced from other countries outside the borders of the European Union. This makes the EU especially vulnerable to global water scarcity. If this trend continues, it may be impossible for farmers in the EU to grow their crops without finding alternative water sources. When paired with the devastating droughts that occurred as recently as last year, it paints a frightening picture.

The meat and dairy industries are the most at risk. It takes 460 gallons of water to grow just one-quarter pound hamburger, although these estimates may vary depending on the breed of cow and the local climate. Many thirsty crops that require a lot of water — like soybeans, sugar cane, almonds and avocados — are grown in areas that are vulnerable to water scarcity.

Making Changes

It will be up to farmers to alter their processes to reduce their water consumption. Some have already started making these changes by switching to drip irrigation, which delivers water directly to the roots of the plant and minimizes evaporation. Other farmers are creating ponds on their property to capture and store rainwater that falls throughout the year.

For meat and dairy farmers, this is a more significant challenge. They can’t reduce the amount of water they provide to their livestock, but by utilizing grazing rotation — changing the fields where the herd grazes periodically throughout the year — farmers can keep the land healthy so it can absorb water when the drought ends and the rains return.

Water scarcity is becoming an enormous problem around the globe. While most cities aren’t at risk of running out of drinkable water just yet, it is becoming harder for the agricultural industry to justify its water use. Farmers and the federal branches that manage them need to start making changes to reduce the industry’s water consumption. Like fossil fuels, water is not an infinite resource. We need to start thinking about our water uses, on both an individual and industrial scale.

Megan Ray Nichols

Megan Ray Nichols

Megan Ray Nichols is a freelance STEM writer and blogger. She's the editor of Schooled By Science and regularly contributes to sites like The Naked Scientists and Inhabitat. Keep up with Megan by following her on Twitter and subscribing to her blog.
Megan Ray Nichols

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