Storms follow heatwaves to batter Southeast Europe’s crops

Storms follow heatwaves to batter Southeast Europe’s crops
ECMWF temperature and wind data for July 28, 2023. / ECMWF
By bne IntelliNews July 28, 2023

As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned on July 27 that the world has moved on from global warming to an “era of global boiling”, Southeast Europe’s farmers are counting the cost of weeks of extreme weather events linked to climate change. 

Two weeks of storms that swept across the region have caused extensive damage to crops. The storms that affected countries including Croatia, Romania, Serbia and Slovenia came on top of record heat in parts of Southeast Europe. 

On July 19, a severe storm tore through the Balkans, resulting in the loss of six lives and leaving dozens injured. The storm took its toll on regions spanning Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia.

More storms have since battered Southeast Europe. Three people lost their lives in a deadly storm that hit Serbia this week, also affecting neighbouring countries. As well as the loss of life, the storm caused power outages and significant damage to property and crops. 

Meteorologists warn that climate change is contributing to such extreme weather events, and that they will only become more frequent in future. 

Meanwhile, other Southeast European countries are battling wildfires that have also destroyed crops, including in Croatia and Albania. 

Projections for Romania scaled down 

The European Commission has reduced its forecasts for sunflower and maize crops in Romania, the biggest economy and agricultural producer in Southeast Europe. 

This year, Romania’s sunflower and maize crops are expected to come in at 11% and 7%, respectively, below the averages of the last five years. 

As in most of the countries in the region, Romania's spring crops have been hit by the heatwaves and storms. Consequently, in its latest set of forecasts the European Commission revised downwards, for the second consecutive month, the sunflower yield prospects for Romania, the main producer of the agricultural commodity in the EU. Romanian farmers are forecast to produce only 2.16 tonnes of sunflower per hectare on average this year, 11% below the average of the last five years but 12% above the 2021-2022 farming year, according to the latest forecast from the Commission.

“Overall, yield prospects for maize and sunflowers have become more pessimistic and our yield forecasts have been reduced below the five-year average,” the latest Commission report reads.

For corn/maize, the Commission estimates an average yield of 5.03 tonnes per hectare, 7% below the five-year average but 67% above last year. Compared to the average of the last five years, Romania could have the second largest decrease in production per hectare in the EU, after Portugal (minus 10%).

Devastating storms

The turbulent weather has continued in Romania, which experienced severe storms and heavy precipitation on July 26, resulting in four fatalities and damage reported across 22 counties. 

There has been similarly extensive damage in Slovenia, where storms brought hail, strong winds and heavy rainfall over the past two weeks. These damaged crops, orchards and vineyards across an area of 10,000 hectares, according to first estimates by the Chamber of Agriculture and Forestry (KGZS), news agency STA reported. The chamber has called for the adoption of an emergency bill to help farmers.

There has been large-scale damage to agricultural land in the northeast of Slovenia in particular this year, with local officials reporting damage worth up to €40mn. They noted that many crops have been destroyed and that it has been one of the toughest farming years.

Croatian farmers appeal for help

Neighbouring Croatia’s agriculture sector is also facing consequences from violent storms that struck parts of the Croatian interior. The Croatian Chamber of Agriculture (HPK) has urgently requested assistance from Minister of Agriculture Marija Vuckovic, saying the storm “caused great damage to a huge number of agricultural areas”. 

“It is urgently necessary to provide assistance to all farmers affected by weather disasters,” says a statement from the HPK published on July 25. 

"According to our knowledge, numerous plantations were destroyed, especially those of winegrowers whose vines were destroyed and the supports gave way. It is impossible to raise them in a short period of time, which is why there is a fear of crop failure. There is also damage to all other farms and the harvest of almost all agricultural crops …  Also, there is a lot of damage to farm buildings, roofs, external tanks and machinery,” says the letter to the Ministry of Agriculture signed by HPK president Mladen Jakopovic.

According to the HPK, farmers have already started repairing the damage in order to try to save at least part of their crops, but are concerned about how they will pay for the repairs. 

Heavy rainfall also led to severe flooding and landslides in parts of Bosnia, triggering a state of natural disaster declaration in western and northwestern cities and towns. The floods isolated a number of small settlements while also causing significant damage to farmland. 

Floods and heatwaves in Serbia 

In mid-July, Serbia experienced a combination of soaring temperatures and heavy precipitation leading to flooding. A state of emergency was declared in 56 cities and municipalities due to overflowing rivers and streams. 

Fruit crops have been particularly affected, with the weather conditions leading to outbreaks of disease in strawberry and sour cherry orchards. Around 15% of the raspberry harvest was destroyed by hail, according to the Association of Raspberry Producers in Serbia, as reported by Beta news agency

Economist Milan Prostran warned as quoted by N1 that total losses from the storm were “in the billions”. With only 2% of crops protected from adverse weather, most of Serbia's wheat fields were affected. Urgent government intervention is required to prevent farmer bankruptcies, Prostran said. 

There is also an impact on the broader economy. While annual inflation, including for most food prices, continued to slow in Serbia in June, vegetable prices, which usually decline with the onset of the new agricultural season in May, continued to grow this year. “The main reason for such dynamics is the unfavourable agrometeorological situation (heavy rainfall),” the National Bank of Serbia (NBS) said when announcing the latest increase in the policy rate on July 17. 

“[A]grometeorological conditions may cause vegetable prices to deviate from the seasonally typical patterns in the coming period as well, i.e. it is possible that they will record a smaller fall during the summer months than usually,” the central bank added. 

This comes after last year’s drought which dragged down agricultural production. 

Wheat damaged in North Macedonia 

Farmers in North Macedonia faced a particularly difficult situation during the wheat harvest as the country experienced an unusually high amount of rainfall, resulting in excessive moisture in the soil.

Head of the Association of Farmers of Macedonia Pero Stojkoski said that this year's wheat yields were 50% lower than the previous year. 

The country heavily relies on wheat imports, which have been rising to nearly 20% of consumption in recent years. However, with the price of wheat surging on the global markets, the decreased yield and quality of locally grown wheat have left farmers disappointed and concerned about the economic implications, Sloboden Pecat reported.

“We had a lot of rain and too much moisture took its toll. We fell 50% short of the yield we planned. We have planted wheat on a 13% bigger area compared to the previous season, but unfortunately we will not get more production. And yields are always tied to quality. The fact that we have low yields also means that we have low quality,” Stojkoski said.

However, farmers expressed satisfaction with the government's decision to purchase domestic wheat for commodity reserves. The Agency for Commodity Reserves has scheduled a public procurement of 15,000 tonnes of wheat, but the price has not been specified yet.

Burning fields 

Amid temperatures that reached new records in some parts of Southeast Europe, numerous wildfires broke out. 

Wildfires ravaged parts of Croatia's Dubrovnik region, a popular Mediterranean tourist destination, on July 24 following strong winds and scorching temperatures.

Albania has also been fighting wildfires, with the most recent incident in the Korce region, where a large blaze broke out in wheat fields, destroying the crop over several hectares. Albania also recorded its highest-ever temperature, of 44C, in the Kucove region in July. 

Globally the month of July is expected to be the hottest ever month on record, prompting Guterres’ warning of the start of an “era of global boiling”, which he described as a disaster for the entire planet. 

“[S]hort of a mini-Ice Age over the next days, July 2023 will shatter records across the board,” the UN secretary-general said. 

“Climate change is here. It is terrifying. And it is just the beginning. The era of global warming has ended; the era of global boiling has arrived.”

Not only Southeast Europe, but the broader Mediterranean region has been plagued by heatwaves and wildfires during July. As the Cerberus and Charon heatwaves struck large parts of the region, the temperature of the sea broke records. Extreme heat has also been reported in the northern part of the continent. 

Data from the EU-funded Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) shows the first three weeks of July were Earth's warmest three-week period on record and most scientists are confident the month will be the hottest July and hottest month on record. 

“These temperatures have been related to heatwaves in large parts of North America, Asia and Europe, which along with wildfires in countries including Canada and Greece, have had major impacts on people’s health, the environment and economies,” Copernicus said. July 6 set a new record for the highest daily average global mean surface air temperature.

“Record-breaking temperatures are part of the trend of drastic increases in global temperatures. Anthropogenic emissions are ultimately the main driver of these rising temperatures,” said Carlo Buontempo, director of the Copernicus Climate Change Service, on July 27. 

Southeast Europe is seen as a global warming hotspot with scientists forecasting temperatures will rise by well above the global average, with extreme weather events becoming more frequent in the years to come.

Contributions from Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje, Iulian Ernst in Bucharest and Clare Nuttall in Glasgow.