Along the Danube River, which snakes its way for 1,800 miles (2,898km) from the Black Forest in Germany to the Black Sea in Romania, scores of towns – such as the small Romanian port of Zimnicea on the Bulgarian border – depend on the waterway for their livelihood.
But this summer’s epic drought and historic high temperatures, now in a fifth gruelling month, have depleted the once-mighty Danube, upending everything that Zimnicea’s residents – port workers, farmers, the shipping industry, anglers, restaurant owners, and families – had for generations counted on to sustain themselves.
Never in living memory has the river run so low, with large areas of mud-cracked river bottom exposed along Zimnicea’s shorelines, the dead molluscs evidence of the devastating toll on riverine life.
With the Danube flowing at less than half its usual summer volume, dozens of cargo barges lie motionless in Zimnicea’s harbor, waiting for a turn to use the only channel deep enough for passage. Locals are collecting the scant rainwater to use for household purposes in order to save potable water from the Danube for drinking. Children play along the shoreline’s new beaches.
As elsewhere along the Danube – and, indeed, across much of Europe this summer – emergency dredging teams have been called in to deepen the riverway to break the cargo jam. Nevertheless, grain transports emanating from Ukraine – with many of its Black Sea ports controlled by Russia, the Danube is an alternative route for the war-wracked country to export foodstuffs – have been forced to shed cargo weight in order to pass, when they can pass at all.
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Across southern Romania, much of which relies on the Danube for fresh drinking water, hundreds of villages are rationing water supplies and curtailing the irrigation of farmland that Europe relies upon for corn, grain, sunflowers, and vegetables. The cruise ships that normally ferry tourists along the iconic waterway are docked. In the first six months of 2022, Romania’s hydropower utility Hidroelectrica generated a third less electricity than it normally does. And Romanian wheat farmers say that drought has cost them a fifth of their harvest. Romania is one of Europe’s largest wheat producers, and all the more important for the international market in light of Russia’s blockage of much of Ukraine’s wheat exports.
“At towns up and down the Danube, drought and climate change take on an existential meaning,” explains Nick Thorpe, author of The Danube: A Journey Upriver from the Black Sea to the Black Forest. “In contrast to city dwellers, they’re having this disaster unfold before their eyes.”