WATER SECURITYHow to Deal with Winter Droughts and Water Shortages

By Tim Schauenberg

Published 9 March 2023

Warmer winters and sparse rainfall have dried up southern Europe. Water scarcity in Italy, France and other countries is threatening this year’s harvests. What to do?

In Europe, many farmers are worried about their crops because there is already too little rainfall this early in the year.

Having enough precipitation in winter is crucial to replenish groundwater reserves, according to Samantha Burgess, deputy director of the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service.

When we look at maps showing soil moisture, we’re seeing a soil moisture deficit,” she said.

In many parts of Europe, this season has been drier than ever before. Though it is still winter, countries from the UK, Germany and the Netherlands to Spain, Belgium, Portugal, France and Italy don’t have enough water. In southern Europe, this is already leading to wheat and barley crop failures. 

The last few summers have been exceptionally hot, causing entire lakes and rivers to dry up in southern Europe. In Italy alone, water scarcity destroyed a large proportion of the rice harvest in just a few weeks. In some countries, water supply restrictions had to be put in place.

Due to the climate crisis, dry periods are set to become longer and more severe in future, especially in summer. If there is also too little precipitation in winter, droughts will last longer and the following summer will be even drier.

So how can farmers, communities and countries prepare to mitigate the impact of drought?

Capturing and Storing Rainwater in Reservoirs
When she spoke to DW last summer, Andrea Colombo of the Po River District Basin Authority in Italy demanded that the infrastructure for different retention basins be expanded.

This would allow winter rain and meltwater to be stored in villages, towns and regions near the Italian Alps for use in the spring. Countries in other regions of the world have already implemented this idea. 

Singapore, for example, has two different water systems. One for wastewater, another for collecting rainwater throughout the city. The water is processed into drinking water and stored in huge reservoirs.

Of course, the effectiveness of these basins depends on how much precipitation falls in winter. In the Italian Alps, this season’s snowfall has been half the usual amount, according to local environmental organization Legambiente. And the Po, the country’s longest river, is only carrying a fraction of the usual amount of water.

The organization warns that the situation is critical and requires urgent action.

We have to reduce the withdrawals for different sectors and uses before we reach the point of no return,” Giorgio Zempetti, head of Legambiente, said in a press release in late February 2023.