No European country escapes climate change impacts from drought anymore. Reduced rainfall and increased temperatures leave their mark everywhere. Even the countries in northern Europe have become aware that water needs to be used in a more sustainable way.
2022 was again an extreme year as for climate change in Europe. In mid-August last year, two-thirds of EU’s territory was experiencing drought (Toreti et al., 2022). Although the availability of drinking water is still not in crisis, water shortage poses enormous problems for society.
There are things we can do to improve the water situation in times of drought, for example by making more water reservoirs to collect rainwater. A large part of the solution also lies in changing our view of how the water should be used. Changes are also needed in agriculture. It may not be possible to grow the same things as ten or twenty years ago, if it means that large amounts of water are required.
The summer of 2022 showed us that the problem of drought is not only a problem in the Mediterranean area. For example, Gotland, Sweden’s largest island, located in the Baltic Sea about 100 km from the mainland, has on several occasions suffered from severe water shortages during recent years. The annual precipitation on the island is approximately 550 mm. However, thin soil layers, extensive drainage, and a lack of coherent reservoirs in the sedimentary limestone bedrock lead to high precipitation run-off. Furthermore, the peak season for tourism is during the summer, resulting in a large seasonal variation in water demand with the highest demand occurring when water supplies are at their lowest. The number of people who live on Gotland all year round is about 58,000, just a fraction of the vast number of visitors. In 2016 the number of guest nights at hotels and other commercial accommodation facilities exceeded 1 million (Region Gotland, 2017).
Unlike other parts of Sweden, the water supply system of Gotland is built on a large proportion of private solutions, with only 67% of the households connected to the public water supply system. Around 65% of the public water supply system relies on groundwater. The remaining 35% of the water comes from lakes and one desalination plant (Sjöstrand et al. 2019).
Because of Gotland`s relatively thin soil layers, that have been intensively drained, the island can only retain a small portion of the infiltrating rainwater as groundwater. In addition, the landscape is mostly flat which doesn´t favor water storage. An uneven precipitation over the year makes parts of the island dependent on long distant piping from a centralized water supply, including desalination plants. Recent dry summers, on-going climate change and the increasing water demand due to a growing population and tourism have been a wake-up call. The region and its authorities are all arguing for using fresh water in a wiser and more environmentally sustainable way. As such, Gotland is an ideal arena for the development of new policies, methods and technologies to collect, store and reuse water.
One example of this is the on-going development of complementary systems for the water supply for the future, and for the vision of a circular society, that has been initiated at the most southern part of the island. Here, the so-called Testbed Storsudret for a sustainable water supply, is developed and managed by Region Gotland and IVL, together with academic partners, NGO´s and SME´s. Climate change challenges such as water shortage and drought require data and strong evidence-based modelling to support decisions.
Rethinkaction uses modelling of climate change impacts and potential solutions to assess the future situation at Gotland, and at five other case study areas in Europe (Tarn-et-Garonne in France, Bács-Kiskun County in Hungary, Aosta Valley in Italy, Almería Province in Spain and Autonomous Region of the Azores, Portugal). The project particularly focuses on land use solutions, such as changes in agricultural production, integrated water management, but also the effect of lifestyle changes, such as reduced food waste and a shift in people’s diet.
While models of climate change are an excellent tool to assess the effect of future climate change, the summer of 2022 showed us that climate change, and water shortage is already a problem, not only in southern Europe, but in large parts of Europe. Climate change is happening much faster than anticipated, which is why we need to act now to secure both our societies and protect the environment.
Toreti, A. et al. 2022. Drought in Europe August 2022, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2022, doi:10.2760/264241, JRC130493. https://edo.jrc.ec.europa.eu/documents/news/GDO-EDODroughtNews202208_Europe.pdf
Region Gotland (2017). Gotland in numbers (Gotland i siffror) 2017, Visby (2017)
Sjöstrand, K. et al. 2019. Marginal Abatement Cost Curves for Water Scarcity, Mitigation under Uncertainty Water Resources Management, 33:4335–4349
Testbed Storsudret for Sustainable water supply: www.ivl.se/english/ivl/project/storsudret.html