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EUROPE: Trapped Between Droughts and Floods

Julio Godoy

BERLIN, Jun 8 2011 (IPS) - Extreme weather conditions across Europe have transformed the continent into a climatic roller coaster – while rainfall in May was the lowest ever measured in Germany and France, June began with stormy showers that caused the death of at least one person, and high economic losses.

On Jun. 6, storms caused flooding in the northern German city of Hamburg. The showers transformed city streets into rivers, and inundated numerous buildings, including the central station, immobilising the regional railroad system.

The city’s airport was also closed down for several hours, due to rain, wind and thunderbolts.

In Bonn, in the centre of the country, a wall undermined by the heavy rains tumbled down and killed a 13-year old girl. In yet another incident, some 30 deer were killed by lightning in a zoological park in Messernich, in the west of the country.

The storms included hail, thousands of lightning strikes, and heavy rains. In the federal state of Hessen, more than 100 litres of rain fell per square metre Sunday. This volume represents almost twice as much as the monthly rain average.

Similar storms Jun. 5 devastated large swaths of France. In the region of Vaucluse, near the Mediterranean Riviera, hailstorms destroyed numerous vegetable plantations, causing “an apocalyptic situation,” according to André Bernard, president of the regional federation of French farmers.

“The storms affected two thirds of the Vaucluse plantations,” Bernard told IPS. “We have suffered losses of hundreds of millions of Euros.”

Environmental experts consider such storms a direct consequence of climate change. “We have to get accustomed to such extreme weather conditions, as climate change intensifies,” Friedrich Wilhelm Gestengarbe, assistant director of the German Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, told IPS.

Gestengarbe said that “Heavy storms and inundations will happen in northern Germany twice or thrice as frequently as in the past, causing losses of up to eight billion Euros.”

The most expensive weather catastrophe experienced so far in Europe was the Sturm Kyrill, of January 2007, which caused estimated costs of 2.4 billion Euros.

Economic losses caused by the storms add to those caused by the extreme drought which affected most of Europe this spring.

According to the German weather service (DWD), the drought during the spring of 2011 was the worst ever measured. “No spring since the beginning of the weather measuring in 1893 has had so little rain as this year’s,” Uwe Kirsche, DWD spokesperson, told IPS.

In some German regions – including Wiesbaden, in the south of the country – only 33 litres of rain per square meter fell on average rained during the spring. “This represents less than 18 percent of the long term rain fall average,” Kirsche said.

“The spring this year was the second warmest too,” Kirsche added. “Only the spring of 1881 was warmer.”

Farmers have had to shoulder the consequences of both heavy storms and drought. “The fields were all ripe very early in the year, but their yields were very low too,” Kirsche said.

In France, the prefecture of the department of Meuse, in the northeast of the country, in a communiqué May 25, ordered urgent draconian measures to reduce water consumption, warning that the region’s water reserves were on the brink of collapse.

The drought affected 54 French departments out of the 96 located in continental Europe.

French farmers complained that the drought was a presage of worse catastrophes to come. Christian Schwalbach, farmer in the department of Lorraine, near the border with Belgium, says he sees the very same weather signals that he saw in the “disastrous year of 2003”.

In 2003, there were droughts and record high temperatures were measured in the spring and summer months. At least 20,000 people died due to the extreme weather conditions that year.

Another consequence of drought is the plummeting of French river levels – this puts the 44 nuclear power plants installed along riverbanks at risk.

Late in May, the ministry of energy ordered the creation of “a surveillance unit” to control the rivers’ flows, “and to guarantee the safety of electricity supply”, said minister Eric Besson.

France is home to 58 nuclear power plants that generate up to 80 percent of the electricity consumed in the country. According to French law, nuclear power plants are allowed to use river water to cool their systems up to a limit – depending of the rivers’ rates of flow and water temperatures.

Besson insisted that the drought and high temperatures registered during the spring do not constitute a “problem for the safety of our nuclear facilities. An eventual water shortage in the rivers does not happen suddenly, and can be anticipated.”

Besson claimed that “the cooling demands of nuclear power plants are low once their systems have been shut down,” suggesting that France was considering taking some nuclear facilities off-line in the event of further drought and hot temperatures.

But for the French Nuclear Observatory, a group of environmental activists urging France to phase out nuclear power, this scenario demonstrates the absurdity of French dependence on nuclear power.

“Our government argues that nuclear power protects us against climate change, because, allegedly, nuclear power does not emit greenhouse gases,” Stéphane Lhomme, general coordinator of Nuclear Observatory, told IPS. “The reality is that climate change and the extreme weather conditions it causes put at risk our environment and our electricity supply – which is highly dependent on nuclear power.”

Lhomme recalled that during the extremely hot and dry springs and summers in 2003, 2005, and 2006 “the drought and the low water levels in the French rivers forced the government to turn off several nuclear power plants”.

“In some cases, the river levels and flows were so low, that it was impossible to draw water from them to cool the nuclear power plants,” Lhomme said. “In other cases, as in the plants of Fessenheim and Cattenom, the government had to order to spray the facilities from without, because the buildings were so hot that it was impossible to cool them from within.”

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