Press play to listen to this article
WÜNSDORF, Germany — Forest fires raging out of control. A brutal drought wrecking harvests. Rivers so parched they flow backward or dry out completely.
These are images and reports more commonly associated with the hottest regions of Europe. But increasingly, this is what spring looks like in eastern Germany.
Climate change is exacerbating dry conditions across the region with devastating effects, sending local authorities, farmers and firefighters scrambling for ways to adapt.
In mid-June, as the mercury reached 39 degrees in parts of former East Germany, fires spread through bone-dry forests, forcing the evacuation of villages.
The state of Brandenburg alone has already lost more than 680 hectares of forest to over 260 wildfires this year — and, with the hottest months ahead, it’s “only just the beginning,” said Raimund Engel, who oversees the state’s two wildfire centers.
The state, supported by EU funding, has poured millions of euros into these centers as part of a bid to meet climate-related challenges in the region.
In Wünsdorf, a mid-sized town in southern Brandenburg, a team of five now monitors wildfires with an AI-supported system that allows them to quickly detect and localize smoke clouds on images captured by sensors — and immediately report them to fire services.
It’s a major upgrade from the previous system. But Engel fears that as global temperatures rise, the team may someday face wildfires as ferocious as those in Southern Europe.
“When I read about above-zero temperatures in the Arctic, I get all queasy,” he said. “I have really big concerns, in so far as the future is concerned, that this will somehow get worse year by year.”
Years of drought in the region have created ideal conditions for wildfires to spread.
While droughts have complex causes, there’s no doubt that Europe — like the rest of the world — is getting hotter due to climate change, meaning more water is lost to evaporation.
Global warming also changes Europe’s wind and weather patterns so that high-pressure systems can get “stuck,” creating long periods without rain, said Fred Hattermann, a hydrologist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.
That’s what happened this spring, leading to drought in almost all of Germany and a particularly dire situation in the country’s eastern states, including the capital Berlin.
A nearly rain-free March desiccated the region’s naturally drier, sandy soils, already weakened by previous drought years. Since the exceptionally hot year of 2018, much of the former East is drying out — and for now, there is no reprieve in sight.
By early June, Hattermann said, the monitoring station in Potsdam, the capital of Brandenburg, would have registered about 250 millimeters of rain in an average year.
“But we had only about 150 millimeters, which is also significantly below 2018, a very sad year for precipitation — that’s really bad,” Hattermann said. A wet summer might bring some relief, he added, but would not replenish the region’s depleted water sources.
POLITICO visited the Wünsdorf center in late May on a relatively quiet day following a night of rain that had barely helped regenerate the parched land.
In Engel’s words, the overnight showers had been “a drop on the hot sand” of Brandenburg.
Precipitation deficits have accumulated to the extent that a few hours of rain “don’t help much,” he said, adding: “If you walk through the forest, the soil is dry.”
The drought, which scientists describe as “exceptional,” is striking the economy of a region where prosperity and employment still trail the former West three decades after reunification.
Agriculture will be hit particularly hard. Brandenburg’s farming association warned in late June that wheat yields would be down 7 percent to 23 percent this year compared to the five-year average, hitting farmers’ incomes at a time of surging fertilizer and fuel prices.
In neighboring Saxony-Anhalt, a pre-harvest survey returned “alarming” results, said Nadine Börns of the local farming association.
“The wheat may dry up if it doesn’t rain soon,” she said. “Although, on many fields, it’s too late, the crops just withered.”
Dwindling water supplies are affecting other sectors too — becoming a source of tension in the region.
Tesla’s gigafactory outside Berlin recently sparked a row over its groundwater use. And Google last year shelved plans to open a data center in the same area after local waterworks refused to grant a permit to the water-hungry industry, German media reported.
Among industries that extract water from rivers in Saxony-Anhalt — glass, paper and soft drink production plants, for example — low water levels now spur “competition for the resource” and hamper production processes, said Jochen Zeiger, an environmental expert at the chamber of commerce and industry in Magdeburg, the state’s capital.
Over the past decade, legal conflicts over water increased in 11 out of Germany’s 16 states, investigative media outlet Correctiv found.
The country’s coal exit — set for 2030 — will also deal a significant blow to eastern Germany, which stands to lose several thousand jobs as a result. While phasing out coal is essential for limiting climate change, the move is nevertheless likely to exacerbate water stress in the region.
For decades, groundwater was pumped out of the mines, topping up the rivers. That will soon stop — and open mines will be flooded, with the idea of creating idyllic lakes to boost tourism and employment.
That plan will make an already difficult situation worse, experts warn.
Hattermann said the lignite in the soils turns the water acidic, meaning the lakes will have to be diluted with water taken, for example, from the struggling Spree River. Plus, the large lake surfaces will create even more opportunity for evaporation.
“This is meant to become the largest artificial lake landscape in Europe,” he said. “On a very sunny day, more water could evaporate from that than Tesla needs every day,” he noted, referring to the nearby gigafactory.
Taking water out of the Spree could have cascading effects on nature as well as on Berlin’s water supply, which is heavily reliant on the river, Hattermann warned.
If the Spree doesn’t get enough water upstream, he said, “it starts flowing backward” — as happens now on average more than 20 days a year.
For now, the dry conditions mostly affect parks and city trees in the capital, said Markus Müller, spokesperson for a water-focused citizens’ initiative. But he’s already noticing “concerned frowning” about what will happen to Berlin’s drinking water supply in the coming decades.
Berlin’s senate, in collaboration with its water services, is currently working on a water “masterplan” meant to adapt water infrastructure to the challenges arising from climate change, population growth and the country’s coal exit.
As part of its plan, Berlin is actively considering measures to ration tap water. It is also involves turning Berlin into a so-called sponge city where rainwater is retained and absorbed where it falls through sustainable drainage systems.
“In the long term, it is important to rebuild Berlin to retain as much water as possible in the region and in the soil,” said Astrid Hackenesch-Rump, a spokesperson for the city’s water provider.
As water levels dropped this year, other eastern states have started issuing limits and adapting laws on water use. In Thuringia and Saxony-Anhalt, local authorities restricted or banned taking water from rivers; some Brandenburgers faced rationing orders in spring.
Brandenburg last year also published a strategy to cope with low water levels, followed by a climate adaptation plan focused on water in March.
That’s in part a response to rising water consumption — driven, in turn, by higher temperatures and dry conditions. In Brandenburg, private households use more water than at any point since 1991.
Steffi Lemke, Germany’s environment minister, said she expects the government to adopt a water strategy for the whole country by the end of the year.
Nadine Börns, of the Saxony-Anhalt farmers’ association, said the agricultural sector was also working on ways to adapt — with new techniques to protect soils and save water, as well as new crop species.
But she warned that there was a limit to farmers’ efforts: “Ultimately, every plant needs water.”
This article is part of POLITICO Pro
The one-stop-shop solution for policy professionals fusing the depth of POLITICO journalism with the power of technology
Exclusive, breaking scoops and insights
Customized policy intelligence platform
A high-level public affairs network