Interview on the drought: “We must learn to get by with less water”
25 Jul 2022
An exceptional heatwave in Europe and 90 percent of Bavarian rivers at low water: In the wake of climate change, Germany will have to get used to new ways of using water, says LMU geographer Ralf Ludwig.
Ralf Ludwig is a Professor at LMU’s Department of Geography. An expert in environmental modeling, he is leading a subproject under the aegis of the EU’s new ARSINOE project. The aim of ARSINOE is to develop innovative strategies and tools to boost climate resilience in nine European model regions, and to translate these strategies into concrete measures.
Mr. Ludwig, Southern Europe has been experiencing extreme aridity for months. The media is talking about the worst drought for a thousand years. Is this just filling the gap in a slow-news summer lull, or is it a consequence of climate change?
Ralf Ludwig: Right now, large swathes of Europe are indeed affected by an extraordinary heatwave and aridity – especially Northern Italy. The accumulation and intensity of such extremes makes it very likely that climate change is involved. But climatic reasons are not the only ones, of course. There is also growing demand for water from industry, agriculture and private households. Whatever the case, we find ourselves in a very exceptional situation.
At the moment, we are recording low water levels in 90 percent of Bavaria’s rivers, so we too are moving toward a wide-ranging drought.
More flooding, more aridity
When is it reasonable to start speaking of a drought?
That depends on your perspective. We draw a distinction between meteorological droughts, when there is no precipitation for a prolonged period, hydrological droughts, when the water levels in rivers and the groundwater table decline noticeably, and agricultural droughts, when crop losses occur as a result of the dryness. At the moment, we are recording low water levels in 90 percent of Bavaria’s rivers, so we too are moving toward a wide-ranging drought.
Apart from droughts, we are also seeing an increase in flooding, flash floods and torrential rain. How does all that fit together?
Climate change skeptics use this argument frequently and, sadly, with considerable success. Yet there is no inherent contradiction. On the contrary: We now have a better understanding of how climate change expresses itself not only in a shift in average figures, but above all in greater variability and, hence, in more frequent and more pronounced extremes. Unfortunately, then, more flooding and more aridity in one and the same region certainly do fit in with the concept of climate change.
Northern Italy especially is an important food growing region in Europe. Crop losses on the current scale weigh heavily on food security.
Adjusting the food production due to the increasing scarcity of water
What will that do to food security in Europe and in poorer countries in particular?
That is one of the key questions. Northern Italy especially is an important food growing region in Europe. Crop losses on the current scale weigh heavily on food security. We can obviously still redistribute food and buy it in from elsewhere. However, if such regions no longer serve as reliable suppliers on a permanent basis, this will naturally lead to changes in the food supply beyond that region alone – i.e. on the international market as well.
Will that also affect what we eat in the future?
Questions about the profitability of certain farm products will be asked more frequently. We can expect to see numerous farm operations adjusting their food production due to the increasing scarcity of water, even in Germany. But other trends too are observable: Some companies in Bavaria, for example, have only recently switched to very water-intensive plants such as courgettes and cucumbers. As things stand, the reason is to maximize profits.
Although the science is unequivocal and there is no shortage of efforts and initiatives, the political decision-making and technical implementation processes are too slow.
The greatest potential for conflict is in agriculture
Climate change comes at huge cost to the economy – 6.6 billion euros a year, according to a recent study by the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs. Yet Germany does not even have a national water strategy. Why is that?
All too often, it takes specific and dramatic events such as forest fires and the Ahr Valley floods for the issue to find its way into public and political consciousness. Even when applying for an EU research project, it recently took us a lot of work convincing them why climate change is a genuine and acute problem for the Lower Franconian region. Although the science is unequivocal and there is no shortage of efforts and initiatives, the political decision-making and technical implementation processes are too slow. Important innovations are still not happening. Having said that, we do now get a lot of support, including – and above all – from the Bavarian ministries. I am confident on that score.
Where are the conflict flashpoints as a result of climate change?
The greatest potential for conflict is in agriculture. Global comparison shows that it is by far the biggest consumer of fresh water, at 75 to 90 percent. Whether agriculture, industry or consumers will have to take the first hit if we need to save water or even ration it – which could happen in Germany too – is a politically charged question. In Bavaria, not even the farmers and winegrowers are pulling in the same direction on this issue. All of which highlights the need to develop integrated solutions that will benefit all actors at a time of growing water insecurity
Lower Franconia is already unable to access sufficient drinking water locally and needs support via pipelines from southern Bavaria.
What might a solution look like?
We must learn to get by with less water. And the government must first take the necessary steps to get us to that point. Second, existing and emerging conflicts must be resolved in dialogue between the key actors in industry, agriculture and nature conservation. Third, we need new and innovative structural and nature-based methods and measures to avoid crisis situations. Lower Franconia is already unable to access sufficient drinking water locally and needs support via pipelines from southern Bavaria.
Another role model would be North Africa, where the situation is even more precarious. In this region, people have been used to handling water carefully for much longer.
New project: Innovative measures to strengthen climate resilience
What can Germany learn from the Southern European countries?
These countries too have, with their eyes wide open, invested in unsustainable cultivation. Above all, our government could learn from Southern Europe how not to do things and how to react when things don’t work. We should take advantage of this knowledge in Germany.
Another role model would be North Africa, where the situation is even more precarious. In this region, people have been used to handling water carefully for much longer: For decades, the concept of integrated water resource management has been implemented successfully in many concrete cases. The insights gained show that we as a society should not merely find stop-gap remedies to emerging problems: We need to get to the root of the issues, reduce our water consumption and work toward communal water management.
Are we likely to see water costs increased after the explosion in energy prices?
I don’t think so. Water prices have always been stable in recent years. When I ask people how much they pay for water, many of them do not even know, because no one thinks about the basic provision of public services – even though prices here are already rather high compared to other countries. You can also see this from the fact that prices for drinking water in southern Bavaria are comparable to those in Franconia, even though it takes a lot more effort to access drinking water in Franconia. I actually expect to see savings and, where necessary, coordinated rationing rather than drastic price hikes. However, water extraction fees could be one mechanism to regulate consumption.
From the point of view of environmental compatibility, we really should rethink our holiday plans.
In light of the droughts, can we still go on vacation to Southern Europe with a clear conscience?
That is a good question. Statistics show that tourists are much more wasteful with water than the local population. On the other hand, tourism is much more lucrative than agriculture for many Mediterranean economies.
From the point of view of environmental compatibility, we really should rethink our holiday plans. But that is coming from someone who himself has planned a trip to Italy.