Drought; another of this year’s plagues

The meteorologists are up in arms: the lack of rainfall and snow on the ground during winter means bone-dry soil. Meanwhile, the President called for the responsible use of water.

The Vistula is recording record lows in its water levels (33 cm) and Rafał Trzaskowski the Mayor of Warsaw is fretting about the supply of water in the summer. He is already planning a campaign to persuade Varsovians to save water.

Forestry officials fear a summer of brush fires. Most forests are already on red alert in April. People have already experienced a blanket two week ban on entering forests as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Soon the exercise may have to be repeated to prevent forest fires. Good news for the wildlife in those forests (doe, bison, bears, lynx) that reawakens when people are absent, as long as the fires don’t start anyway. And those fires can spread to suburban areas causing destruction and even loss of life.

But it's the farmers who have possibly the most to fear. Crops will wither if the soil turns to desert. And that is what is happening in large parts of the country such as Central Poland where April is turning out to be a very dry spring month after a relatively dry winter. If the summer turns out to be one with high temperatures and low rainfall water tables may plummet to record depths, causing more problems for farmers.

Climate change has moved the dial on water retention. Not so much because the annual average level of rainfall has decreased (it remains between 550 and 600 millimetres) but because it is concentrated over shorter periods of time, making it more difficult to retain water. It flows quickly into rivers and further into the sea.

This situation has been made worse by mismanagement of water and the resources that could keep it in the ground. According to water economy specialists over-drainage, removal of groves, balks and forestation for intensive agriculture has hit water retention levels.

Following the recent reports, President Andrzej Duda held a press conference after a meeting with the Minister of Agriculture, the Minister of the Environment, the Minister of Climate and the Minister of Maritime Economy and Inland Navigation.

"We ask for rational water use, because we don't have much water. Relevant programs are already underway, but they are planned over years", said President Duda.

“I asked Minister Ardanowski what the situation looks like, the minister told me that a lot will depend on what takes place in May, at the moment it is very dry”, he added.

The consequences

Government is concerned that the water shortages will result in higher food, water and energy prices. All that on top of the bout of inflation that has hit Poland in the first quarter of the year, with the inflation rate reaching 4.5 percent.

Experts fear that water shortages will affect the energy industry and that problems with meeting demand for water in the cities will grow. Last year’s shortage in Skierniewice (population 50,000) which had to impose water limits could be repeated on a far larger scale.

The energy sector, with some of its installations dependent on cooling their power-generating systems with river water, is also expected to be affected. It fears a repetition of the situation from August 2015 when Poland’s power grid operator, PSE, imposed limits on energy consumption for industry after temperatures soared above 30 degrees, depressing water levels in all rivers. But the saving grace this year in the event of a heatwave may be that the economic downturn caused by the pandemic may reduce overall energy consumption.

Policy makers realise action is needed to keep rainfall as close as possible to where it lands. Building of small retention reservoirs, the deregulation of rivers to slow down their flow, and the restoration of melioration systems so that they do not only drain but also keep water have been the recommendations of most policy reports on water economy. Farmers should also be made aware of the need to reduce water use via no-till farming, although admittedly this is difficult in a country the agriculture of which is so dominated by cereals. No-till farming requires crop rotation that goes beyond cereals.

The Ministries of Agriculture and Maritime Economy are both preparing to face the drought this summer. A reserve fund to compensate farmers is in place. But everyone will pray for consistent levels of rainfall to bring relief to the besieged economy.

At an international level water economy is becoming a pressing issue. Rising temperatures resulting from climate change are leading to greater evaporation of water and droughts in many states. Water is predicted by think tanks to be a resource in future that military conflicts could be fought over. And venture capital funds are increasingly taking an interest in water resources as key investments.