With his two fishing rods planted firmly on the bank of the Vistula River, 85-year-old Tadeusz Norberciak peered at rocks exposed on the dry riverbed, a telling sign of Poland’s looming water crisis.
“I can’t remember water levels being as low as what we’ve seen in recent years. It’s tragic,” the pensioner said, sporting a fisher’s vest and cap for protection against the blazing sun.
“Further north it’s even worse; the Vistula looks like puddles,” he said on a part of the waterway passing through Warsaw.
Hundreds of rivers in Poland are drying up little by little. According to experts, the central European nation of 38 million people risks a serious water crisis in the coming years.
The Polish Supreme Audit Office in a report said that there is already only 1,600m3 of water available for each Pole per year, only slightly more than the EU average.
“Our [water] resources are comparable to those of Egypt,” it said in the report bearing the ominous title “Poland, European Desert.”
Contrary to popular belief, Poland, which is located at the confluence of oceanic and continental climate zones, has never had much water. It receives less rainfall than countries further west, while the rate of evaporation is comparable.
Warmer winters with less snow mean that groundwater is not being replenished by spring melts.
Poland captures little of this water, which experts say is a big part of the problem.
The result is that a vast strip of land across the country is slowly turning into steppe — semiarid grass-covered plains that threaten agriculture, forests and wildlife.
With climate change, more frequent droughts and only brief and often violent rainstorms, experts say that the situation is reaching a critical threshold.
“In 2018, a very, very dry year, water levels fell to 1,100m3 per capita, per year, nearly below the safety threshold,” said Sergiusz Kiergiel, spokesperson for Wody Polskie (Polish Waters), the state institution responsible for water policy.
The situation is likely to be even worse this year. The Polish Hydrological Service sounded the alarm this month, warning that groundwater levels in 12 out of 16 Polish provinces could be too low to fill shallow wells.
More than 320 municipalities have already imposed water restrictions carrying heavy fines. Some have banned filling swimming pools, watering gardens or washing vehicles.
Skierniewice, a town of 47,000 people about 80km southwest of Warsaw, had to cut water in some districts early last month.
For days, water was only available to ground-floor apartments. With no running water on upper floors, municipal authorities were forced to distribute 10 liter water bags to furious residents.
The shortages are triggering social conflict. Residents of Sulmierzyce in central Poland accuse a local open pit brown coal mine of siphoning off water.
In Podkowa Lesna, a small leafy town near Warsaw, residents are up in arms against their neighbors in nearby Zolwin, who they accuse of using too much water from a common source to water their gardens.
“Parts of the country are already experiencing hydrogeological drought — a situation when water doesn’t enter the deep layers of the soil and is not filtered in springs,” Kiergiel said.
Experts say that capturing more water is crucial. Lacking sufficient reservoirs, Poland retains only 6.5 percent of the water that passes through its territory, while Spain manages to keep nearly half.
To ward off a crisis, the government plans to spend 14 billion zlotys (US$3.64 billion) to build about 30 holding tanks. These should double Poland’s water retention capacity by 2027.
Farmers would be able to build small tanks up to 1,000m3 without special permits.
“We’re only just discovering that Poland has an issue with water... We thought it was a sub-Saharan Africa problem, not a European one,” Greenpeace Poland environmental expert Leszek Pazderski said.
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