Europe’s disappearing rivers illustrate multiple converging catastrophes

August 21, 2022

When I was teenager, I took a week-long cruise with my family up the Rhine River. The voyage started in Amsterdam. With stops at various cities, the ship sailed all the way to Basel, Switzerland, hundreds of miles inland and about 800 feet higher in elevation than Amsterdam.

That trip would be more perilous today as the levels of Europe’s major rivers decline in the face of an extreme drought that has resulted in almost no rain for the last two months across much of Europe. The Rhine, the Loire, the Danube and the Po have all been hard hit. The fate of these rivers is intimately linked to Europe’s energy, food, and transportation security. And the fate of both the rivers and the daily needs of Europeans are intimately bound up with the trajectory of climate change and resource depletion, especially of water and energy.

For the Rhine, freight transportation has been curtailed as barges are unable to carry their maximum weight without scraping the bottom of the river in some places. The Rhine is a central artery for the transportation of food and fuel. Just as Europe needs more coal in the right places to generate electricity as Russian natural gas supplies have been curtailed, the cheapest way of moving coal has now become impaired. Trucks and trains are now being forced to carry more freight than normal, straining an already strained supply chain.

The Po is flowing at one-tenth its normal volume. That’s allowing seawater from the Adriatic to travel up the river and damage the rice crop that depends on the Po’s fresh water for irrigation. Up to 40 percent of Italy’s agricultural output comes from the Po valley.

For the Loire, the major problem is heat. The river water is used to cool nuclear reactors along its course. But that water is now so warm that after absorbing heat from the reactors, the water cannot be cooled sufficiently before it is returned to the river so that it won’t harm aquatic life. As a result, reactors were forced to reduce their power output. Recently, however, France’s nuclear authority relaxed environmental rules in the wake of continued hot weather—weather that both increases the demand for electricity, especially for cooling, and makes it difficult to cool discharge water sufficiently. On top of this half of France’s nuclear reactor fleet is out of service and undergoing routine maintenance just as the need for electricity has skyrocketed.

Along the Danube, damage to wildlife habitat is becoming apparent. Shipping has halted on the German portion and is expected to halt on the Austrian portion of the river due to low water levels.

Of course, all of this is taking place against the backdrop of the Russia-Ukraine war which has led to cuts in natural gas and oil flows from Russia to Europe. Previously, Russia was Europe’s largest source of imported natural gas. The war has also reduced exports of wheat and sunflower oil from Ukraine. Ukraine had been the world’s largest exporter of sunflower oil and the fifth largest exporter of wheat.

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In the wake of what’s happening, Russia seems more secure than Europe, primarily because Russia is rich in the raw materials needed by modern society, especially fossil fuel energy. The German economy, on the other hand, has taken a body blow as a result of its dependence of imported energy, much of which was previously supplied by Russia. This is proof that all the technical, engineering and managerial skill for which German industry is known means little if the necessary resources upon which to apply those skills is lacking. And, the dearth of rain and low water in the Rhine are exacerbating an already bad situation for Germany.

Nitrogen fertilizers essential to high crop yields are (or rather were) major Russian exports before war-related sanctions curtailed their availability.

Food, energy and related prices such as fertilizer were already rising prior to the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war. The war and attendant sanctions accelerated that trend.

In addition to the interlocking vulnerabilities of the food system to both climate change and to the partly human- and partly nature-induced input shortages such a fertilizer and fuel, the effect of climate change on crop yields and on transportation of bulk grains via major rivers makes clear that human society is facing multiple catastrophes at once.

It should also be no wonder that armed conflicts often break out in times of scarcity and then make that scarcity worse. Adding insult to injury the world logistics system—based on dubious and dangerous just-in-time delivery principles—is becoming ever more strained by the convergence of geopolitical upheaval and uncertainty; the effects of natural limits on our ability to extract from the soil and the Earth’s crust everything we as a society need and want; and climate change.

Human society might be able to respond to one or two major catastrophes successfully. But the catastrophes keep multiplying and spreading across the global economic system. The underlying cause of all the urgent problems, however, is scarcely discussed, that is, the focus on perpetual economic growth and therefore growth in consumption. It’s what drives climate change because fossil fuels are still the major fuels in our total energy mix. It’s what drives depletion of resources including energy, soil and water. The consequences of this focus on growth are all too apparent.

There is a continuing belief that after a period of upheaval and multiple converging challenges, human society will ultimately return to a relatively placid and prosperous future. Leaders across the world have scarcely contemplated the possibility that the multiplying challenges we face are now a permanent feature of a world run on a philosophy of perpetual growth, but which is fast approaching multiple limits.

Photo: Low water near the Rhine estuary. August 11, 2022. By Hejnjahns via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nahe_Rhein_M%C3%BCndung_Niedrigwasser_2022_01.jpg

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions.

Tags: catastrophic climate change, climate change, Europe