Battle of the Alps? Water woes loom amid climate change

Associated press

BRIG, Switzerland (AP) — A battle is brewing around the roof of Europe over the planet’s most precious resource.

Abundant for centuries, the crystal-clear waters flowing from the Alps could become increasingly challenged as climate change and melting glaciers affect the lives of tens of millions of people in the years to come: Italy wants more crop irrigation in spring and summer. The Swiss authorities want to block the flows to ensure that their hydroelectric plants can start up when needed.

For the first time in four years, after a pandemic lull, government envoys from eight Alpine countries – big, small and tiny – are meeting in Brig, southern Switzerland, as part of a grouping known as the of the Alpine Convention, created 30 years ago to help coordinate the life, leisure and limited resources of Europe’s most famous peaks.

Countries, ranging from the small principality of Monaco to small Slovenia to powerhouses like France, Germany and Italy, have given much attention to what is known as the “Simplon Alliance “. Named after an alpine pass between Italy and Switzerland, it aims to make transport more environmentally friendly, in particular by favoring rail over road and public transport over private cars in the mountains.

But with global warming causing a worrying shrinkage of alpine glaciers this year, especially in Switzerland, the issue of frozen water in the mountains, or watered and snow-covered on them, is becoming increasingly important. Conservationists say the water jockey is not being treated with enough urgency – and want Alpine countries to do more to talk about the future of the resource.

This is not new: Turkey and Iraq, Israelis and Palestinians, are among the many countries and peoples feeling the strains of water woes. But well-irrigated and relatively wealthy Europe has been far above these problems, harvesting abundant water resources for agriculture, hydroelectricity, ski resorts and human consumption.

The “9th Report on the State of the Alps” – written by the Swiss hosts and due for approval on Thursday – notes that water supply is a “particularly urgent problem” because the Alps are a huge reservoir of water, which eventually flow to the benefit some 170 million people along some of Europe’s most famous rivers, including the Danube, Po, Rhine and Rhône.

“Drinking water supply, industrial production, agricultural productivity, hydroelectricity and other uses all require constant availability of alpine water,” reads a near-final version of the report, obtained by The Associated Press. . “Climate change is putting these functions under pressure, as glaciers retreat and precipitation patterns are constantly changing.”

“Thus, the reduction in water quantities and the limited reliability of the water supply will be a major problem in the decades to come,” he added.

Kaspar Schuler, director of CIPRA International, a commission dedicated to protecting the Alps based in tiny Liechtenstein, said governments had come to a worrisome halt in tackling the problem as they should – by creating working groups, expanding research or proposing ways that water can be better shared in the future.

“We – the observer organizations – are happy that they have it on the agenda, but we are really surprised that it is so vague,” Schuler said in an interview. “They are aware of the fact that this will be the big problem in the future. But they behave like it’s not that important yet.

“The description of the difficulties is well done by the Swiss, but they still don’t have the courage to really address the elephant in the room,” he added.

While Alpine resorts and villages depend on water, the main upstream users are Swiss hydroelectric power stations, which want to conserve water until it is most needed to power turbines which provide around 60% of the country’s electricity.

But the biggest consumers of water are downstream – industrial areas like Grenoble and Annecy in France, the Austrian capital Vienna and areas around Bolzano in South Tyrol in Italy are likely to feel the impact.

Cities south of the Alps, particularly in France and Italy with their drier climates, are more likely to experience water shortages than cities in the north, according to the report. “This is particularly true of intra-Alpine dry valleys like Valle d’Aosta in northwestern Italy, already affected by significant water stress.”

State Secretary Bettina Hoffmann, who represents Germany’s environment ministry in Brig, said her country was working to “package” sustainable water issues into the broader context of tackling the climate crisis. – the centerpiece of the United Nations climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, from 6 November.

“Alpine countries need to act on two levels: only resolute climate action that stops global warming can preserve the remaining glaciers,” she said. “But at the same time, we have to adapt to changes in the water balance both in the Alps and in the rivers fed by water from the Alps.”

She called for “in-depth exchanges on how to protect the water cycle in the Alps” and suggested that countries in the region share best practices and ideas. “We need to involve all stakeholders, from tourism to agriculture to the water supply sector.”

CIPRA’s Schuler suggested that many have become too complacent about the abundant waters of the Alps – and that those days may soon be over.

“Until now, all non-Alpine countries – the lowlands – were happy that the Alps offer so much: landscapes for recreation and sports, ski resorts and the water that everyone needs”, said he declared. “They also provided peak power and on-demand hydro power.”

“So far everyone has been happy and the Alps have delivered,” Schuler said. “Going forward, it will be a battle … over these resources, because the lack of water, in particular, can really hurt a lot of people.”