Along the Danube, which winds 1,800 miles (2,898 km) from the Black Forest in Germany to the Black Sea in Romania, dozens of towns – like 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 grueling fifth month, have depleted the once-mighty Danube River, upending all that Zimnicea residents – port workers, farmers, shipping industry, fishermen, restaurateurs and families – had for them. generations relied on them to meet their needs.
The river has never been so low in living memory, with large areas of mud-cracked river bottom exposed along the shores of Zimnicea, with dead molluscs bearing witness to the devastating toll of river life.
With the Danube flowing at less than half its usual summer volume, dozens of freight barges lie motionless in the port of Zimnicea, waiting for a bend to use the only channel deep enough for passage. The inhabitants collect the little rainwater to use it for domestic purposes in order to save the drinking water of the Danube for drinking. Children play along the new shoreline beaches.
As elsewhere along the Danube – and, indeed, across much of Europe this summer – emergency dredging teams have been called in to deepen the river to break the gridlock. Nevertheless, grain transports from Ukraine – with many Black Sea ports controlled by Russia, the Danube is an alternative route for the war-ravaged country to export food – have been forced to cut the cargo weight in order to pass, when they can pass at all.
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In southern Romania, much of which depends on the Danube for drinking water, hundreds of villages are rationing water supplies and reducing irrigation of farmland that Europe depends on for corn, grain, sunflowers and vegetables. Cruise ships that normally ferry tourists along the iconic waterway are docked. In the first six months of 2022, the Romanian hydroelectric company Hidroelectrica produced a third less electricity than it normally does. And Romanian wheat farmers say the drought has cost them a fifth of their crop. 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.
“In cities along the Danube, drought and climate change take on existential significance,” says Nick Thorpe, author of The Danube: A Upriver Journey from the Black Sea to the Black Forest. “Unlike city dwellers, they see this disaster unfold before their eyes.”