Dry man of Europe, Poland strives to save water

by Thin Lei Win | @thinink | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 12 December 2019 09:23 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A water level indicator is seen on Vistula riverbank in Warsaw, Poland August 19, 2015. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

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Poland - hit by back-to-back droughts - is on a mission to save water and end its reputation as dry man of Europe

By Thin Lei Win

ROME, Dec 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Poland - hit by back-to-back droughts - is on a mission to save water and end its reputation as dry man of Europe.

Crop yields have shrunk. Taps have run dry.

And all this before climate change truly bites, experts say - hence the drive to act fast before things get even worse.

"It is the first comprehensive plan to counteract the effects of droughts in Poland," said Daniel Kociolek, a spokesman for Wody Polskie (Polish Waters), a state body created in 2018 to manage water resources.

The six-year strategy - which runs from 2021 to 2027 - aims to improve water availability in Poland, a country of 38 million people, through public campaigns and investments, including the building of 30 new water reservoirs.

The government says Poland has one of the worst rates of water scarcity in Europe: witness the last two years of drought, which cut crop yields and even left some towns out of water.

Other European countries also fared badly this summer, with farming hit in France, Belgium and Lithuania, according to the European Drought Observatory, part of the European Commission.

Krzysztof Kubiak, a livestock farmer in Sochaczew, near Warsaw, said without grain and grass reserves from previous years, there would not be enough food for his 58 dairy cows.

"If there is not much rainfall next year, then I will feel the effects much more strongly," said the 47-year-old, who chooses not to irrigate his farm due to the high cost.

Around the world, water is fast becoming dangerously scarce, driven by a growing population, urbanisation, economic growth and climate change. Farming eats up 70% of global freshwater.

By 2040, water shortages could jeopardise up to 40% of all irrigated crops and a third that rely on monsoons, said the U.S.-based think tank World Resources Institute.

Poland has one of the largest farm sectors in the European Union with 1.4 million farms and employing one in 10 people, according to EU figures.

But big new reservoirs could in fact make matters worse.

"Rivers have big, natural potential for water retention. If we start to construct big dams and reservoirs, you have to regulate the water stream," said Zbigniew Karaczun, a professor at the Warsaw University of Life Sciences.

"This will cause even more water to escape than before, exacerbating the problem of lack of water," he said.

TAPS RUN DRY

This year's drought, which affected 14 out of 16 provinces, followed last year's sizzling summer, said Polish Waters.

Spring cereals were hit in nearly half of the municipalities, it said.

People suffered, too.

Parts of Skierniewice, a town near Warsaw, and Sulmierzyce, in central Poland, ran out of water, according to media reports.

Residents in about 300 municipalities struggled with low water pressure in their taps, according to Polish Waters.

Given climate change, the outlook could be still worse, scientists said, citing the frequency of droughts and the increasing number of areas affected.

"During a drought period, there is only 1,000 cubic metres (1 million litres) of water per one Polish citizen per annum. It is up to four times less than in other EU countries," said the official website for "Stop suszy" (Stop drought) project.

Poland's Supreme Audit Office (NIK) and Polish Waters said each Pole has about 1,600 cubic metres of water a year.

Hydrologists consider a country to be facing water scarcity if supplies drop below 1,000 cubic metres per person annually.

Wiktor Kotowski, a professor at University of Warsaw's Department of Plant Ecology & Environmental Conservation, said mis-management was the real problem.

Poland could be in a much better position if it had kept its wetlands, instead of converting them into farmland, or had not straightened its rivers to speed up water flow.

This intervention stopped nature retaining water then returning it back to the atmosphere through evapotranspiration, thereby cooling the climate, he said.

The government's plans also include deep wells for irrigation which could further deplete the water, he said.

He said farmers should receive subsidies "to change their agriculture into crops that can sustain and resist drought."

For Kubiak, the livestock farmer, officials should look at storing water that is currently wasted.

In the spring, melted snow and ice flows down the drainage system to the rivers and this water should be stored, he said.

"But no farmer would have enough money to make such a storage and irrigation system."

(Reporting By Thin Lei Win @thinink, Additional reporting by Magdalena Mis, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, and property rights. Visit www.trust.org)

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