What the droughts expose

As the meteorological summer draws to an end, we reflect on the droughts in Europe and China. Nick Meynen describes how the droughts aggravate the already bad energy poverty. Diego Marin argues how reducing our material and consumption footprint could be the solution. Lastly, Sergiy Moroz discusses how the measures EU governments have taken to deal with droughts up to date are not enough.

This summer’s epic droughts in Europe and China may be the worst in five hundred years, but they’re also becoming a new normal. Besides causing hunger stones and previously submerged statues to surface, the droughts also exposed how Germany depends on waterways to transport coal and how France depends on rivers to cool down nuclear reactors.

Drained of energy

In the face of severe drought, the cost of inaction is the breakdown of ecosystems and the social fabric. A self-defeating reaction strategy is to replace the loss of energy due to droughts with more fossil fuels or to induce artificial rain (China). Equally self-defeating is to persist with a broken market system. While energy companies in the EU alone are set for over 200 billion euro of extra profits in one year, already 1 in 4 homes in the EU cannot afford to cool, heat, or light up their homes. Skyrocketing energy poverty is a recipe for revolution. 

Today’s droughts are far more impactful than they need to be. Thousands of Belgians who switched to 100% renewable energy cooperatives years ago are suffering far less than those who depend on fossil fuels and nuclear to keep the lights on. Wind and solar energy production are not affected by droughts, and the cooperatives are not profit-machines—they work for the people who use them. They are still affected by the market turmoil because they can sell their surplus for far less than what they sometimes need to buy, but they are still showing that renewables are just the cheapest option. Unfortunately, regulatory frameworks to enable a boost in community energy initiatives are nowhere near their full potential.

The question is: when will the river of patience run dry? The Don’t Pay movement in the UK gives an idea of what could soon happen: more than 130.000 people have already pledged to stop paying energy bills from 1 October onwards. This is a direct response to Boris Johnson’s caretaker government plan to unleash the full force of the so-called free market, meaning more price hikes in practice.  A similar #WijBetalenNiet movement started in Belgium, where the annual bills for gas and electricity for an average family went from 1000 to the for many unpayable 10.000 euro a year.

Resource management

Macron’s blunt ‘end of abundance’ comments enraged people who lost all sense of abundance a long time ago, and the many who never experienced it to begin with. This end of easy resource availability was already predicted in the Limits to Growth report back in 1972; scientists and citizens organisations like the EEB have warned about it ever since, while also emphasising the highly unequal and unfair distribution of the resources that are left. After recognising dwindling resource availability, the logical conclusion is the need for a more strictly enforced, rational, and equitable use of resources. From fossil fuels to water, from soil to sand, all the building blocks of our society are becoming less available and more expensive. If the record droughts finally get enough heads out of the ever hotter sand, it is about time for a serious debate on the best way to deal with our resource situation at a systemic level.

The European Commission has been focussing a lot on end-of-pipe solutions. Meanwhile, our H2020 LOCOMOTION research shows that energy demand can be cut at the production side too. The Commission plans to reduce 55% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, why not create such a plan for raw materials? By setting a 60% reduction target of the EU’s material footprint, we can return our economies to planetary boundaries by putting sufficiency at the core. This is how we can do this: on one hand, by increasing the usage rate of circular material, to reduce our need for virgin materials which cause climate and environmental justice struggles tied to material extraction; on the other hand, by phasing out particularly wasteful and unnecessary products.

Reducing our material and consumption footprint would mean not only cutting our economies’ material demand but also using less energy and water. This way, we can allow for the creation of environmentally oriented strategic autonomy, more resilient supply chains that are resistant to shocks, more equal societies, as well as climate and environmental justice, as our economies operate within planetary boundaries.

Water, the source of all life

Drought and water scarcity are not the same. Drought is a natural event, a shortfall in rain over a prolonged period of time. Water scarcity is caused by water demand. Droughts become substantially worse as a result of the overexploitation and poor management of freshwater ecosystems, such as rivers, lakes, and groundwater aquifers. 

To date, the measures EU governments have taken to deal with droughts have largely been reactive, such as restricting household water use during droughts. But droughts and water scarcity must be addressed when it is still possible to “save” the water provided by our freshwater ecosystems in anticipation of the next drought. Europe’s water resources and soils have been and continue to be stretched worryingly thin. More than 60% of our waters do not meet the standards required by the EU’s flagship water law, the Water Framework Directive. Governments urgently need to put adequate measures in place to ensure that Europe’s rivers, lakes, wetlands, streams, groundwater, transitional, and coastal waters are able to remain or become healthy by the 2027 deadline set in the EU’s water law. Protecting and restoring wetlands and rivers to ensure they are healthy and functioning, as well as to improve the quality of the soils, is key to mitigating the impacts of climate change and the new normal of more droughts, which have increased in both frequency and intensity. Healthy ecosystems store water and increase infiltration to the soil and aquifers, and also buffer temperature changes, decreasing water stress.

Droughts are going to happen ever more often in Europe. But despite that, our economies can be resilient and suffer less from water scarcity by reducing our energy and water demand in smart, just ways. Politicians who merely point to personal behaviour changes are dangerously distracting us from what their very own sworn duty is: the duty of care.