Joint Research Centre Produces Report on Drought in the Mediterranean

8 Mar 2024 by The Water Diplomat

The Mediterranean coast is in the grip of an unprecedented drought, with reservoirs at exceptionally low levels, rivers experiencing low flow volumes, and groundwater levels dropping. The winter precipitation that is typical of the region’s climate has been well below average – from the 1st to the 20th of January the Mediterranean region experienced critical drought conditions,  and a quarter of Europe and North Africa is currently under drought conditions.

On the 20th of February the European Commision’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) released a technical report entitled ‘Drought in the Mediterranean’ which analyses both the persisting droughts across the Mediterranean and their impact across the region. The report was produced under a broader mission of the Copernicus Institute and the Copernicus Emergency Management Service to provide evidence-based scientific support to the European policymaking process.

The report extracts information across a range of key drought related indicators such as a combined drought indicator, a precipitation index, temperature, and a snow water index which monitors the extent of snow water resources.

Based on these indicators, the report concludes that following the severe and prolonged drought events that impacted northern Africa during the last 6 years, and Europe for over 2 years, drought conditions are again affecting large parts of the Mediterranean region.

The combined drought indicator shows severe and potentially critical drought conditions across the Mediterranean region. Drought warnings are in place (or advised) for southern and eastern Spain, southern France, most of Italy, Malta, eastern Poland, central Romania, southern Greece, Cyprus and central Türkiye, while drought alerts are in placed or advised for southern Italy, southern Spain and Malta.

In the area of precipitation, persistent shortfalls of precipitation have been experienced by many parts of southern and eastern Europe for more than a year with the exception of most of the Iberian Peninsula and Greece. However, for the eastern region, the drought quickly receded in November 2023.

Temperatures across the region during the whole of 2023 were also above normal, with the northern Mediterranean experiencing average temperatures of more than 3°C above average and the rest of the region experiencing temperatures at least 1°C above average.

In the area of snow water resources, the snowpack across Italy is very limited, at approximately one third of the snow water volume that has been recorded for the decade between 2011 and 2022. The Alps by contrast have received two extensive episodes of snowfall in the last quarter of 2023, which melted fairly rapidly after a shortfall in snow in January 2024.  

The report also points to seasonal forecast predicting a warmer spring in southern Italy, Greece, the Mediterranean islands, and northern Africa. As the drought’s severity is expected to persist, concerns rise about its impacts on agriculture, ecosystems, drinking water availability and energy production.

The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has predicted that heatwaves and droughts will become more frequent and severe in many regions in the coming decades. The Mediterranean basin is one of the few regions expected to experience a severe reduction in precipitation.

The situation is thus expected to continue to impact the region, highlighting the need for adaptation strategies to reduce the effects of the drought. Investments in drought early warning systems, increasing the water efficiency of existing and new technologies, changing to more drought resistant crops and improving access to water resources are crucial for improving community preparedness and resilience.

However, managing droughts is complex. A pragmatic approach to drought management and adaptation planning requires an impact-based risk assessment, which in turn should rely on drought impact observations. Therefore, the JRC and its European Drought Observatory for Resilience and Adaptation (EDORA) partners have collaborated on the development of the first European Drought Risk Atlas, aimed at assessing drought risk using innovative technologies.