Working on drought in Romania

From the 2nd to the 6th of October, there was a meeting in Romania for the Blue Deal project Tackling Drought Romania (Southwest Romania). So, we are going to tackle the drought issue. But what exactly is drought? And when a project works on the drought problem, what do we mean precisely? Whose problem is it? And what can we do about it?

Watermelon (Pepene Verde) as cultural heritage

In Oltenia, drought primarily means there is insufficient water for agricultural purposes. And a significant agricultural product in Oltenia is the watermelon. The Dabuleni watermelon is a piece of cultural heritage in itself. So, transitioning to another – less drought-sensitive – agricultural product is not straightforward. The agricultural research institute in Dabuleni has developed a large number of alternative agricultural products, such as the Jujube, a small apple, but their application in the region is not automatic.

Deterioration of the irrigation system

A second challenge is the deterioration of the irrigation system that was established over 50 years ago, extracting water from the Danube. 62% of this irrigation system is no longer in use, and therefore, some farmers have switched to using groundwater. Restoring the irrigation system requires substantial investments, but a subsidy application from Europe was rejected. The reason being that the system is considered unsustainable. This is because the water is now pumped about 150 meters, resulting in significant water leakage and, of course, high energy costs. It must, therefore, be made sustainable.

Climate change

The third challenge is climate change. In Oltenia, this means a lower river flow from the Jiu River. It has also become warmer, and there is less direct rainfall on the land. The desertification in the region is often solely attributed to climate change, but it is questionable whether that is accurate. The Danube riverbed has been reduced, causing a large part of the former floodplain to no longer be submerged, resulting in drying up. This cannot be easily reversed given the functions now established in this area.

Lack of effective collaboration

Fourth, there is a lack of effective collaboration among the partners in the region. It’s mainly every man for himself, which means that joint solutions are not sought or are insufficiently explored. This is a legacy from the past when farmers were compelled to work together.

Groundwater issues

Fifth, the groundwater level is declining. This is related to the deterioration of the old irrigation system, prompting farmers to seek alternatives for irrigation. Part of the groundwater extraction is monitored through a permitting system, but the monitoring system is not yet fully comprehensive. Moreover, households (without permits) can have their own wells with limited capacity, and there is inadequate oversight of the actual water quantity extracted from these sources. A consequence of the low groundwater level is the declining quality of the soil for agricultural purposes.

What’s next?

First and foremost, it is necessary to restore the Sadova-Corabia irrigation system. This is not under the responsibility of the Ministry of Water (Apele Romane). The total area of the Sadova-Corabia irrigation system is 80,000 ha. Because there are no major investments possible, several investment requests are being processed through the Ministry of Agriculture (ANIF). It seems that this will be successful, but the 2024 elections in Romania can change everything.

Connection between rivers

In the northern part of the pilot area, we are focusing on strengthening the connection between the Jiet River and the Jiu River. By widening and deepening the Jiet in combination with creating polders and retention basins, more water can be retained upstream. This water can sustain the northern irrigation area. Pumping from the Danube is not realistic for the northern sub-area, given the required sustainability and the demands investors have for such projects.

Consequences of groundwater extraction

Secondly, it needs to become clear what the consequences of groundwater extraction are. Therefore, we are working on mapping the water balance in the pilot area. For this purpose, we have held discussions with the National Hydrological Institute of Romania. They possess the necessary data. From the Ministry of Water, the requested dataset is seen as the standard for monitoring drought in Romania.

Restoring the source

We are also focusing on a small pilot project to restore a source area. This primarily involves the restoration of watercourses from that source area to the plots of the research institute in Dabuleni. We are also trying to involve other stakeholders to increase knowledge about and the use of institutional cooperation agreements.

In Bucharest, the project team has made agreements for the project’s continuation. Teams have been formed to focus on the work packages.