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Devastating drought

Kerry SkyringAugust 16, 2013

Farmers in Austria and Hungary are rethinking climate change as a bitter drought tears through their fields. How will they grow food if the weather is so unpredictable?

A damaged corn crop in Harvey County, in central Kansas August 7, 2012. Rains over the weekend across most of the U.S. Midwest corn and soybean growing region, and forecasts for more rain this week, will help relieve stress on crops, an agricultural meteorologist said Monday. REUTERS/Jeff Tuttle (UNITED STATES - Tags: AGRICULTURE ENVIRONMENT)
Image: Reuters

Standing beside his stunted maize crop Christian Schmidt grasps a cob and twists it from the stalk. It's a fraction of the size it would have been if the rains had come, as usual, in July. Instead he looks out across a scorched field that is barely worth harvesting.

Schmidt is the third generation of his family to earn a living from this land - a 200 hectare crop-farm within sight of the Hungarian border. He's seen good times and bad, but never times like these.

Trockenheit Mais Landwirtschaft Österreich Farmer Schmidt compares cobs Bild: Kerry Skyring, 09.08.2013, Nickelsdorf, Burgenland, Österreich, zugeliefert von Sella Oneko/DW
Christian Schmidt assesses the damage to his cropImage: Kerry Skyring

"When I was young, there were maybe two or three days in July when temperatures were more than 30 degrees but otherwise the temperatures were 25 to 30 degrees," Schmidt said in an interview with DW. He explained that temperatures have been significantly higher in recent years.

"But this year over - 40 degrees - that's a very noticeable difference," he added.

Climbing cost of climate damage

For farmers in Austria and across the border in Hungary this is just the latest bout of extreme weather to ravage their fields. In March, temperatures dropped to record lows. This was followed in May and June by some of the worst flooding the region has seen in recent history. Now, high temperatures and poor rainfall threaten to wipeout what is left of this year's harvest.

"This drought is catatrophic. The farmers have suffered massive damage and the heat continues," said Austrian agriculture minister Nikolas Berlakovich when he visited the province where Christian Schmidt tils the land. Berlakovich estimates says the damage could cost "several hundred million euros.".

Austria has set up a disaster fund to compensate people hit by natural events like floods and drought, but the fund simply cannot cover all of today's claims. A decade ago between 50 and 60 million euros were paid out annually. In 2012, that figure more than doubled - and costs are expected to be even higher this year.

Trockenheit Mais Landwirtschaft Österreich Drought affected maize Bild: Kerry Skyring, 09.08.2013, Nickelsdorf, Burgenland, Österreich, zugeliefert von Sella Oneko/DW
Damage caused by extreme weather costs millions of eurosImage: Kerry Skyring

"We have to alter the disaster funds and we have to get the change in rules approved in Brussels," said Berlakovich, referring to the European Commission's requirement that member states get approval before providing direct assistance to farmers. The minister urged farmers to buy feed for their animals now and to retain receipts so that when government funds are released they can claim for compensation.

Climate reality

As this year's crop shrivels in the field, so is the doubt that once clouded the debate on climate protection.

"We must adjust to the fact that in the coming decades there will be similar heatwaves, perhaps even hotter," warned meteorologist Ernest Rudel on Austrian national television.

Bildnummer: 58492297 Datum: 13.09.2012 Copyright: imago/Eibner BERGBAUERN IN TIROL, eine enthornte Braunvieh Kuh (Rinderasse) auf einer Bergwiese vor dem Kaisergebirge auf dem Heuberg nahe der Ortschaft Walchsee in Tirol, Österreich. Gesellschaft AUT xcb x0x 2012 quer Alm Almen Almweidefläche Alpen Aussenaufnahme BIO Berge Bergwelt Cow Economy Kuh Land Landschaft Milch Mountains Nutztier Österreich Sommer Spätsommer Tirol Wirtschaft austria blauer Himmel Österreich 58492297 Date 13 09 2012 Copyright Imago Eibner Mountain farmers in Tyrol a Braunvieh Cow Bark race on a Mountain meadow before the Kaiser Mountains on the Heuberg near the Town Walchsee in Tyrol Austria Society AUT x0x 2012 horizontal Alm Pastures Alps Outside view Bio Mountains Mountains Cow Economy Cow Country Landscape Milk Mountains Animal Austria Summer Late summer Tyrol Economy Austria Blue Heaven Austria
If temperatures keep climbing, cattle won't be able to graze on the mountainsImage: imago/Eibner

“We humans have done something to the weather. A lot of climate changing gases are released into the atmosphere and of course that changes the balance and as a result we can reckon on changed weather and climatic conditions,” said Rudel.

The future of farms

In the more mountainous parts of Austria, it's usual for cows to come down from the Alpine meadows at the end of summer; fat and content from the lush green grass. But this year, in some parts of the country, the cows are already down from the Alm because there is no grass and in some cases no water. Farmers in the Alps and, like Christian Schmidt in the croplands of the east, are wondering what changes they need to make in order to survive.

“One can't suddenly, because of one year, plant olive trees – they would probably freeze in the winter,” he said. However Schmidt believes that in the long term the “rotation of crops” and their varieties will have to change.

Earlier this week, Austria's coalition government approved a package of measures to help drought stricken farmers. It includes funds to subsidize the purchase of now scarce animal feed, and deferral of interest payments on agricultural loans for one year. This will give some short term comfort to farmers but they will still have to face the longer term challenges posed by an increasingly unpredictable climate.