Balkans heatwave decimates agriculture
In the fields around Belciugatele, a village east of Bucharest, the sunflowers are shrivelled and drooping, the maize plants brown and stunted.
Walking along the village lane as the temperature heads for 39C, Mihai Gurlui, the village mayor, says weeks of extreme heat are punishing a local economy that relies – like much of Romania – on the land.
“Earlier crops like wheat and barley are okay,” he says. “But later crops will suffer. We could lose 50 per cent.”
That would be a severe blow for a community of 2,300, most of whom are subsistence smallholders who sell any surplus. Romania’s government said this week it would grant financial aid to 550,000 drought-hit farms, though it insists there will be plenty of food to feed its population this year.
The heatwave is far from just a Romanian phenomenon. Even as the US Midwest is ravaged by drought, unusually hot and dry weather has affected much of Europe’s prime agricultural land – from eastern Italy across the Balkans and Black Sea, and into Russia as far as western Siberia and in Kazakhstan.
It has caused power shortages, led to more than 300 wildfires in Bulgaria, and produced an algae epidemic in the Sea of Azov – an offshoot of the Black Sea in south-east Ukraine – which witnesses said turned blood-red.
Cities have seen temperatures close to records since June or early July.
Temperatures in Budapest, the Hungarian capital, this week hit 37.7C, topping the previous record of 35.8C set in 1939. Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, reached 37.4C, its second-highest temperature at any time for 112 years, a fraction below the 2010 record.
Also this week, Podgorica, capital of Montenegro, hit 43.5C – the highest since records began 50 years ago. The government advised citizens to stay indoors between 10am and 6pm.
In the Balkans and Ukraine, the heatwave follows one of the harshest winters in memory, with temperatures dropping below minus 30C, heavy snowfalls and parts of the Black Sea freezing over.
Most unsettling, perhaps, are warnings that such extremes will keep recurring. Mykola Kulbida, director of Ukraine’s national meteorological centre, says summer temperatures this year have been 10C-12C above seasonal norms.
Squarely blaming global warming, he suggests temperatures will be similar in the future.
“We will not see anything different for the next 10 years,” he predicts.
The heat is changing consumption patterns and creating problems for power producers. Hidroelectrica, Romania’s big hydro-electric generator, said this week it was cutting output by more than a quarter because of a dramatic fall in water flow in the Danube and other rivers.
Hungary’s electrical grid company, Mavir, said demand – partly depressed by the country’s economic downturn – had not yet exceeded the hot summer of 2007. But increased use of air conditioning has in the past decade narrowed the gap between peak winter and summer demand from about 20 per cent to less than 6 per cent.
But the biggest impact is on farming. Romania’s agriculture ministry says 47 per cent of the maize crop by area is affected to various degrees by drought, making it the worst-hit crop. Hungary’s farmers say the drought has cut yields of maize, also one of the country’s most important crops, by nearly 40 per cent, causing losses of up to Ft200bn ($890m).
The heatwave, coupled with spring frosts, had “seriously damaged Hungarian arable farming”, says Peter Toth, director of Budapest-based agro-consultancy Agra Europa.
“High crop prices are causing a serious problem for animal husbandry as well, especially pork and poultry production are losing competitiveness,” he adds.
In Ukraine, wheat production is set to fall by almost a third, though the corn harvest should dip only slightly with increased acreage making up for lower yields. Official estimates put corn exports at 12.7m tons for the coming marketing year, compared to 14m in the previous period.
That may still be enough to make Ukraine the third-biggest global corn exporter after the US and Argentina, according to Konstantin Fastovets, agro-analyst at Troika Dialog investment bank in Kiev.
But at the meteorological centre, Mr Kulbida says farmers across the region will have to adapt their crops to the new climate.
“Adaptation of the agricultural sector is still [happening only] in the minds, not deeds,” he says.