Europe Confronts Worst Drought in 500 Years, Officials Say

Countries in southern and western Europe are bearing the bunt of the drought, with varying impacts on olive farmers and society writ large.

By Daniel Dawson
Aug. 18, 2022 14:52 UTC

Europe is expe­ri­enc­ing its worst drought of the past 500 years, accord­ing to the European Commission’s Joint Research Center.

We haven’t ana­lyzed fully [this year’s drought] because it is still ongo­ing, but based on my expe­ri­ence, I think that this is per­haps even more extreme than 2018,” Andrea Toreti, a senior researcher at the European Drought Observatory, told a con­fer­ence last week.

Just to give you an idea, the 2018 drought was so extreme that, look­ing back at least the last 500 years, there were no other events sim­i­lar to the drought of 2018, but this year I think it is really worse than 2018,” he added.

See Also:Droughts Are More Frequent, Lasting Longer and Accelerating Water Shortages, U.N. Says

Western and cen­tral Europe have recorded vir­tu­ally no rain­fall in the past two months, and the Joint Research Center warned that con­di­tions will likely worsen over the next three months.

Officials at Europe’s lead­ing sci­ence and knowl­edge ser­vice esti­mated that 47 per­cent of the 27-mem­ber bloc is at risk of being impacted by the drought, with farm­ers across four of the con­ti­nen­t’s largest olive oil-pro­duc­ing coun­tries among the most severely affected.

France, Italy, Portugal and Spain – which com­bined to yield 88 per­cent of the European Union’s olive oil pro­duc­tion in the 2021/22 crop year – have felt the impacts of an unusu­ally dry win­ter and spring fol­lowed by sev­eral extreme heat­waves.

In Spain, the world’s largest olive oil-pro­duc­ing coun­try by a sig­nif­i­cant mar­gin, the coun­try’s reser­voirs are at just 40 per­cent of their nor­mal capac­ity. Officials have responded by putting water restric­tions in place.

In Andalusia, the most fruit­ful olive oil-pro­duc­ing region in the world, the drought is par­tic­u­larly pro­nounced. Local reser­voirs are at just 25 per­cent capac­ity. Underground aquifers and nat­ural bod­ies of sur­face water are also run­ning low.


Dried irrigation ditch in Albufera rice fields of Valencia

Olive grow­ers in the region have warned that the har­vest from rain­fed groves will likely be less than 20 per­cent of the aver­age of the pre­vi­ous half-decade. Yields from irri­gated groves are also expected to fall by more than 50 per­cent.

The Association of Young Farmers and Ranchers (Asaja) pre­dicts that Spain will pro­duce 1 mil­lion tons of olive oil in the 2022/23 crop year, the low­est total since 2013/14.

A recently-pub­lished study in Nature Geoscience found that parts of Spain are the dri­est that they have been in more than 1,000 years.

The drought has been just as unfor­giv­ing on the west coast of the Iberian Peninsula in Portugal. Rainfall in Europe’s fourth-largest olive oil-pro­duc­ing coun­try has also been his­tor­i­cally sparse.

According to the Portuguese Institute of the Sea and the Atmosphere (IPMA), Portugal has received half of the rain­fall it nor­mally does dur­ing a hydro­log­i­cal year, which runs from October to September.

Overall, the 2021/22 hydro­log­i­cal year is on pace to be the sec­ond dri­est since records began in 1931, with just 419 mil­lime­ters of rain falling to date. Only 2004/05 was drier.

Gonçalo Almeida Simões, the exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Alentejo Olive Oil Association, told local media that olive grow­ers across the coun­try were feel­ing the effect of the drought.

Rainfed groves – which rep­re­sent 30 per­cent of all Portuguese olive groves – were being hit the hard­est by the drought and expect to see sig­nif­i­cant pro­duc­tion declines.


On the other hand, irri­gated groves are still being sup­plied with ade­quate amounts of water and are likely to see more minor pro­duc­tion decreases.

As a result, offi­cials in the north­ern Portuguese region of Trás-os-Montes have pledged to invest more money in irri­ga­tion infra­struc­ture to help pro­duc­ers deal with severe water deficits.

On the other side of Spain, France is also fac­ing its most severe” drought on record.

Insufficient pre­cip­i­ta­tion across the coun­try – specif­i­cally in the moun­tain­ous south­east where snow­fall at the begin­ning of the year melts dur­ing the sum­mer to replen­ish rivers and reser­voirs – com­bined with scorch­ing heat­waves, which have led to evap­o­ra­tion from those unre­plen­ished rivers and reser­voirs, have caused the gov­ern­ment to put water restric­tions in place across the coun­try.

Less than 1 cen­time­ter of rain fell on aver­age across France in July, which has resulted in short­ages of drink­ing water and the pos­si­bil­ity of dis­rup­tions at some of the coun­try’s nuclear power plants.

Farmers across the south of the coun­try have been told to reduce the amount of water they are using to irri­gate their crops and, when they do, to irri­gate at night to avoid evap­o­ra­tion.

In the south­ern region of Occitaine, an olive farmer in Gard told local media that the drought and heat­waves have des­ic­cated his olives. Bruno Nicolas said he even tried to dig a well in an attempt to reach the aquifer but could not afford to dig deep enough to reach it.

Overall, pro­duc­ers in France expect to see olive oil-pro­duc­tion fall by up to 50 per­cent as a result of the drought.

Meanwhile, drought and poor infra­struc­ture have led Italy’s agri­cul­ture min­is­ter to warn par­lia­ment that one-third of the coun­try’s agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion is at risk of fail­ing.

The his­tor­i­cally low water lev­els of Lake Garda and the Po River have snatched most of the inter­na­tional head­lines, but drought in the south­ern Italian regions of Puglia, Calabria and Sicily are expected to result in olive oil pro­duc­tion falling by one-third.

However, the drought in Puglia has had some very dif­fer­ent con­se­quences from the rest of Europe. The increas­ingly arid cli­mate in Italy’s largest olive oil-pro­duc­ing region has dried out the soil and low­ered its abil­ity to retain water.

Heavy rain­fall expe­ri­enced by the region ear­lier in the week resulted in land­slides and flood­ing, which has caused an esti­mated €200 mil­lion of dam­age to olive groves and other crops.

Experts expect these severe sum­mer squalls to become increas­ingly fre­quent as the region receives its annual rain­fall in more con­cen­trated peri­ods of time.

Coldiretti, a farm­ers’ asso­ci­a­tion, said south­ern Italy needs to invest in infra­struc­ture to cap­ture and save this rain­wa­ter while pre­vent­ing it from dam­ag­ing crops and rural infra­struc­ture.

Faced with the trop­i­cal­iza­tion of the cli­mate, it is nec­es­sary to reduce soil con­sump­tion and orga­nize to col­lect water in the wettest peri­ods to make it avail­able in times of dif­fi­culty,” Coldiretti wrote in a state­ment.

This is why main­te­nance, sav­ing, recov­ery and recy­cling of water are nec­es­sary with infra­struc­tural works, strength­en­ing the net­work of reser­voirs in the region, cre­at­ing basins and also using the for­mer quar­ries to col­lect rain­wa­ter in order to man­age its use when it is needed,” the asso­ci­a­tion con­cluded.

Share this article


Related Articles