“The drought didn’t come suddenly. It’s been coming for the last 20 years. We have lived with our plants for years and we have been seeing everyday that there is something wrong,”  farmer Milan Hanč described his experience in agriculture.

The Czech Republic is suffering its worst drought in 500 years, but you wouldn’t know it from the state of the grass. Everything is green as usual in May, but underneath the surface, the soil is drying up. An agricultural drought has spread across 98% of its country. The drought is, according to President Miloš Zeman, a “far more serious problem for the Czech Republic” than the current outbreak of coronavirus. 

Rain forecasted for the end of the week will only replenish the soil’s top 40 centimetres. Dive any deeper, and you’ll find no change to the increasing groundwater deficit, according to Intersucho, the expert group that is mapping the current state of drought in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and the rest of Central Europe.

“Precipitation deficit, mild winters, dry seasons, deficit of groundwater. We are not just aware of it: we can feel the change of climate happening,” argued Milan Hanč.

Intersucho’s drought mapping of Czechia showing the most affected areas

A historic drought

The scientists behind the Intersucho project claim that it is the worst drought in the last five hundred years. “The deficit is very deep and nowhere close to end soon,” said Miroslav Trnka from Intersucho.cz, adding that rain might actually help to ease the situation for farmers. However, it won´t help with replenishing the long lasting deficit of groundwater.

According to commonly used definition, an agricultural drought is considered to have set in when the soil moisture has dropped to such a level that it adversely affects the crop yield,  naturally undercutting outputs, profits and livelihoods.

That is exactly what is happening now in the Czech agricultural sector. Farmers are already expecting losses of at least 10 percent. The Agriculture Ministry expects a worse scenario and estimated  the annual harvest to be 20 to 40 percent lower. The big difference this year is that the lack of moisture has already appeared by spring. 

“Vegetation started growing earlier this year, because there was a little of snow in winter but there are no reserves of water for the plants to grow because the soil is drained,“ explained Miroslav Trnka, who is the coordinator of the intersucho.cz team and as a scientist is responsible for analysing the  drought and its correlation to  climate change..

The connection is well understood by farmers who have seen the changes impacting their harvests for decades.

Milan Hanč, along with his brother, founded a strawberry farm, Jahodárna Vraňany, more than 20 years ago. Today they are the biggest producers of strawberry seedlings in the country. Their 300 ha farm is located on the fertile soil of the central Bohemian Region, alongside the Vltava river.

“We cultivate our land with the most respect and care, but can’t use the same methods as our forefathers. The conditions and climate of their time has changed drastically,” argued  Milan.

“The climate they had naturally we have to now create in the foil greenhouses,” said Hanč as their land-grown strawberries are now producing 50 percent less yield compared to those in greenhouses”. 

Milan Hanč’s strawberry farm in Vraňany.

Milan Hanč loves his job. He says he does not mind walking the extra mile to sustain his living. “I like learning about new technologies that help us with the harvest. For example harvesting part of the strawberries on the high tables in the foil greenhouses, that is something we have learnt from our colleagues in the Netherlands.” 

As a possible solution, “this technique enables us to harvest strawberries for the whole year, something we couldn’t do in our climate. We have bigger yields and better quality of the fruits. It also saves water and the harvest is easier to handle,” Hanč explained.

However, this competitive push amidst a drought has pumped up costs.

“We need to be competitive and we want to keep the high quality of our products, but that means our costs are rising. That is something that might be harder to understand for the customers who sometimes ask ‘why are you so expensive’? What they might not understand is that we have to adapt to what is happening and it’s not just a question of rising costs. We have to cultivate the land differently. We have to compensate for the needs of plants,“ Milan Hanč added.

A Century in the Making

Agricultural Minister Miroslav Toman (left) and Environmental Minister Richard Brabec  (right) at the press conference. Credit_Government Office

In the last century, Czech lands have lost half of their ability to retain water, according to university professor Josef Šedlbauer, head of the Chemistry department at the Technical University in Liberec. This is the pivotal reason underpinning the current extreme drought in the Czech Republic.

“We can slow down climate change and mitigate some of its negative effects. Land restoration is the fastest and the most effective way of mitigation. If we do nothing, there is no hope,” Šedlbauer said. Such measures, he added, include the restoration of floodplains and wetlands, river restoration, sustainable drainage systems, forest measures, soil management and sustainable agricultural practices.

Jaroslav Mikoláš, from agricultural firm Lupofyt, described experiences similar to those lived by the Hanc brothers. Lupofyt cultivates over 1900 ha in the western part of the Central Bohemian Region. The region is located in the shadow of the Ore mountains, now considered to be one of the driest areas in the country.

“We grow hop, rapeseed and poppy. We practise what I call ‘Precise Agriculture’. That means, for example, that for the hop gardens we use a measuring probe to find out if there is any groundwater in the area. If there is not, we simply move the garden to a different location. We also do experiments with different varieties of plants which are more suitable for the dry region,”

He agreed that the biggest problem is the inability of the land to retain water. “That’s why we use new technology. We built a big retention reservoir to save water and we use soil analysis and GPS monitors to determine what is needed in the specific areas.” he added.  

The need for the land restoration is supported by the Czech government. Since 2014, the Environment Ministry has invested over €436 million, covering around 15,000 projects directly dealing with drought.

“At the moment we are offering 2,5 billion CZK (€436 million), and we are ready to increase this amount if there is interest. I appeal to regions and cities.to start investing in energy to projects that will help with water retention,” stated Minister Richard Brabec at a press conference on 12th May.

The cumulative effects of a long-lasting lack of precipitation and extremely low snow cover in winter are behind the drought.

But drought knows no borders, and is now affecting the whole of central Europe. “All the states have to deal with drought. Slovakia is in worse condition than last year. Countries to our South-east face the same situation,” Miroslav Trnka from Intersucho explained. Extreme drought is also being reported by local media in Poland, parts of Austria and in Hungary

Milan Hanč’s strawberries

While Jaroslav Mikoláš and his agricultural firm Lupofyt have sought to utilise government funds to support their farming, Milan Hanč is proud that his strawberry is receiving only agrarian subsidies for the soil they cultivate. 

So far, the Czech government has only really been able to support drought-affected farmers with cash handouts.

They are now shifting to rainwater harvesting measures, through their project “Rainwater,” and a recent bill calling for mandatory harvesting or retention systems on every new building. 

“Water retention is the key element in replenishing the deficit of groundwater and one of the most important measures in fighting the drought,” explained Environment Minister and Deputy Prime Mininster, Richard Brabec, at a press conference this week. 

However, many of Czechia’s farmers feel this is only a band-aid solution that fails to address a more complex climate problem, that the government continues to avoid.

“We have to adapt to what is happening to our environment. We have to educate ourselves and try to understand nature. That is the only option we have if we want to continue doing what we love,” concluded Milan Hanč, from his strawberry farm in Vraňany. 

Petr Vodsedalek

About Petr Vodsedalek

Petr is a reporter, an editor of a local news magazine, and a freelance journalist.