I don't really like the term 'drought'. Interview with prof. Elżbieta Niemirycz

Rising temperatures have been worrying climatologists, farmers and hydrologists for some years now. While some associate the increasingly warmer days with pleasant recreation, for others they make work impossible. In Poland, there is currently an agricultural drought in every province. Prof. dr hab. Elżbieta Niemirycz from the Department of Analytical Chemistry at the University of Gdańsk talks about how we can prevent the worsening condition of Polish crops and water bodies.

Udział gleb zagrożonych suszą

Share of rapeseed and colza crops at risk of drought Source: Institute of Soil Science and Plant Cultivation In Poland 12 crops are at risk

- We currently have agricultural and hydrological droughts in Poland. Who is threatened by them? 

- Let us start by saying that I do not really like the term 'drought'. Rather, we currently have a shortage of water in some regions in Poland, which of course is still a very serious problem. Compared to other European countries, Poland's water resources are (according to a report by the Central Statistical Office) among the lowest in Europe. The rate of freshwater availability per inhabitant in Poland is 1600 m3, with a European average of 4500 m3. It should also be remembered that our country's relatively small water resources are additionally characterised by an uneven distribution over its territory. Regions with poor water resources include Kujawy, northern Mazovia and part of Wielkopolska. In the world, most water is used by agriculture, which consumes an estimated over 70% of surface water, and in some developed countries in the world even about 90% (Gromiec M.,2021, Selected technologies of water, wastewater, sewage sludge, examples of applications of the European Ecological Centre). It must therefore be assumed that agriculture uses water to the greatest extent, while at the same time its scarcity prevents it from working efficiently.

- What are the potential solutions to this situation? 

- Nature and water resources are what we have. The hope for solving this problem lies in hydro technics and modern technologies. The low state of our country's water resources is caused not only by climatic and hydrological conditions independent of human activity but also by the lack of a modern water management infrastructure. It is this that is supposed to ensure proper retention and efficient use of water resources. Prof. Romuald Szymkiewicz writes in his book 'Dolna Wisła - rzeka niewywykwykanych możliwości' (The Lower Vistula - a river of untapped potential) that Poland is one of the few European countries that still do not make economic use of its rivers. We currently have a few dozen water stages, while other European countries have several hundred (Poland 69, Norway 365, Turkey 610, Spain 1200). In a study at the University of Gdańsk, we proved that the share of groundwater as a component of the Vistula River's waters in the estuary cross-section is 70.2% on average. The quantity and availability of groundwater (groundwater) for agriculture can be increased by damming the river. Such an activity is not only necessary due to the water quantity shortage, but also economically justified, as shown by recent scientific studies of the UG. Preparations to start the construction of the Siarzewo barrage below Włocławek are a positive step in this direction.  

Another system that could help the water shortage in the agricultural sector is the use of modern solutions for the recovery of water from municipal wastewater. The water thus obtained would be suitable for irrigating fields and farmers would eo ipso obtain better yields. It should be added that specialists from the University of Gdańsk and the Gdańsk University of Technology have achieved highly effective results in pretreating wastewater using electrochemical and photoelectrochemical methods of oxidising hardly decomposable organic pollutants. 

The implementation of modern technologies in water management requires legislative support from the Polish government, i.e. the Ministry of Climate and Environment and the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Inland Navigation.  

- What is the explanation for Poland's low water resources when theoretically we have a water-friendly temperate climate and an adequate number of water bodies? 

- Water is in short supply mainly in summer, i.e. at the highest temperatures. High recorded river flows in estuary cross sections of rivers, occur in March and April, while in summer (July) there is a flood risk in the upper sections of rivers. The largest flood, known as the flood of the millennium, was recorded in July 1997 in the upper section of the Oder, and more widely in southern and western Poland, but also Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Austria. This event showed that even in temperate climate zones, extreme flood events can occur, but also more recently droughts. In Poland, however, such events are relatively rare. As of 2018, the main entity responsible for national water management is Państwowe Gospodarstwo Wodne Wody Polskie, and this entity can be expected to be able to cope with the complex consequences of climate change.

Na zdjęciach rzeka Serchio w mieście Lucca: u góry listopad 2021, na dole czerwiec 2022 roku/FABIO MUZZI /PAP/EPA

Pictured are the Italian Serchio River: top November 2021, bottom June 2022/FABIO MUZZI /PPA/EPA

There is currently steady warming of the climate. It is interesting to note that for some it results in a shortage of water and for others in excess. In Canada, for example, the polar zone is melting, resulting in an excess of water in its northern regions. Southern European countries such as Spain have been hit by the African anticyclone, bringing extreme heat. The situation in these countries is now much worse than ours. The example of the dried-up Serchio river in Italy clearly shows the scale of the threat. As I said, the regulation of rivers, the creation of weirs and dams, water retention and recovery, should significantly improve the situation. The use of hydraulic engineering achievements and the implementation of urban wastewater circulation management is a necessity in modern water management.

- What do you think, therefore, of the proposals that are emerging to dismantle the dam in Włocławek? 

-It is obvious to me that this dam must function and that another dam must be built in Siarzewo. All European countries have relatively more such dams. Spain, for example, has more than 1,200 and we have only 69. Nature must be helped in this respect. I would like to stress strongly, that there is currently no dam that does not have specially designed paths for aquatic creatures. In this context, there is probably no need to justify that man still comes first.

- Do you think optimistically about the future of Polish water bodies and Polish water management? 

- Yes, although at the moment, from the pandemic period to the war in Ukraine, we are having extraordinary times. This conflict is expensive and will also cost our country. I am convinced that within the framework of the concept of sustainable development, matters of key importance to you will be consistently implemented, and the subject of our conversation today will be one such. I hope that many young people with mathematical talents will enrol on courses in hydro technics, chemistry or molecular biology and build good water infrastructure in Poland in the future.

Elżbieta Niemirycz

ELŻBIETA NIEMIRYCZ - Professor of Agricultural Sciences, Faculty of Chemistry, Department of Analytical Chemistry.
Her scientific activities are in the area of protection and shaping the environment, focused on explaining the processes of transformation and migration of anthropogenic hazardous substances in the river environment and the region of the Vistula estuary to the Baltic Sea, against the background of other regions of Europe and North America. She is a publishing reviewer of PAS books in the field of water management.

Marcel Jakubowski / Press Office UG