Battle of the Alps? Water problems loom in the midst of climate change

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

Abundant for centuries, the crystalline waters that flow from the Alps could become increasingly contested as climate change and the melting of glaciers will affect the lives of tens of millions of people in the coming years: Italy wants them for the irrigation of crops in spring and summer. Swiss authorities want to block flows to ensure their hydroelectric plants can accelerate when needed.

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

Countries, ranging from the principality of Monaco and small Slovenia to powers such as France, Germany and Italy, have focused a lot of attention on what is known as the “Simplon Alliance”. Named after an Alpine pass between Italy and Switzerland, it aims to make transport greener, also favoring railroads over roads and public transport over private cars in the mountains.

But with global warming that this year caused a worrying contraction of Alpine glaciers, especially in Switzerland, the question of frozen water in the mountains, or rain and snow on them, is becoming increasingly important. Environmental advocates say the fight for water is not being addressed with sufficient urgency and want Alpine countries to do more to talk about the future of the resource.

This is nothing new: Turkey and Iraq, Israelis and Palestinians, are among the many countries and peoples who feel the difficulties of water. But well-irrigated and relatively affluent Europe has largely been above such problems, gathering abundant water resources for agriculture, hydroelectricity, ski resorts and human consumption.

The “9th report on the state of the Alps” – drawn up by the Swiss hosts and to be approved on Thursday – notes that the water supply is a “particularly urgent problem” because the Alps are a huge reservoir of water, which in the end it benefits some 170 million people along some of Europe’s most famous rivers, including the Danube, Po, Rhine and Rhone.

“The supply of drinking water, industrial production, agricultural productivity, hydroelectricity and other uses all require a constant availability of alpine water,” says a near-final draft of the report, obtained by the Associated Press. “Climate change puts these functions under pressure, as glaciers are retreating and precipitation regimes change constantly.”

“Hence, reduced quantities of water and limited reliability of the water supply will be a major problem in the coming decades,” he added.

Kaspar Schuler, director of CIPRA International, a commission dedicated to the protection of the Alps based in small Liechtenstein, said governments have been concerned to halt steps to address the issue as they should, by setting up working groups, expanding research or devising ways that water can be better shared in the future.

“We – the observer organizations – are happy that they have it on their agenda, but we are really amazed that it is so blurry,” Schuler said in an interview. “They are aware that this will be the big problem in the future. But they act 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 face the elephant in the room,” he added.

While Alpine resorts and villages are dependent on water, the main upstream users are Swiss hydroelectric power stations, which want to hold water until it is no longer needed to power the turbines that supply around 60% of the country’s electricity. .

But the biggest consumers of water are downstream: industrial areas such as Grenoble and Annecy in France, the Austrian capital Vienna and the areas around Bolzano in South Tyrol are likely to be impacted.

Southern Alpine cities, particularly in France and Italy with their drier climates, are more likely to experience water shortages than northern cities, the report said. “This is particularly true for the dry valleys of the Alpine interior such as the Valle d’Aosta in the north-west of Italy, already affected by significant water stress”.

State Secretary Bettina Hoffmann, who represents the German Environment Ministry in Brig, said her country is working to “bring together” sustainable water issues in the broader context of the fight against the climate crisis, the core of the United Nations climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, starting November 6.

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

He called for “in-depth exchanges on how to protect the water cycle in the Alps” and suggested that countries in the region should 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 those days may be over soon.

“Until now all the non-alpine countries, the lowlands, were happy that the Alps offered so much: landscape for leisure and sport, ski resorts and water for everything you need,” he said. “They’ve also provided peak electricity and hydroelectricity on demand.

“So far, everyone was happy and the Alps have delivered,” said Schuler. “In the future it will be a battle … over these resources because especially the lack of water can really harm many people.”

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