Yesterday I received a post in my email concerning the dropping water levels in major rivers across Europe as the region suffers under an historic drought. According to German media outlet Deutsche Welle (DW), the extended heat, lack of rainfall, and prolonged drought across Europe have caused major rivers to dry up. The Rhine River is one of the busiest waterways in the world as it flows from the Swiss Alps to the North Sea, and water levels are extremely low. The low-water levels have snarled supply chains and created more problems for an already-struggling economy in Europe. Container ships have had to reduce their load by at least 30% to pass through the obstructions the low-water levels have created in the Rhine. As the water level has dropped, centuries-old warning messages known as hunger stones have been uncovered in the dry riverbeds.
When I looked online, I found a hunger stone (German: Hungersteine) is a hydrological landmark used across central Europe. Hunger stones serve as famine memorials and warnings and were erected in Germany and in ethnic German settlements throughout Europe in the 15th through 19th centuries. The stones were embedded in the river during droughts to mark the water level as a warning to the future generations that they will have to endure famine-related hardships if the water sinks to this level again. One famous example in the Elbe River in the Czech Republic, has “Wenn du mich siehst, dann weine” (lit. “If you see me, weep”) carved into it as a warning. Many of the stones featuring carvings or other artwork were erected following the hunger crisis of 1816–1817, which was caused by the eruptions of the Tambora volcano. In 1918, a hunger stone on the bed of the Elbe River, near Tetschen, became exposed during a period of low water coincident to the wartime famines of World War I. Similar hunger stones in the Elbe were uncovered during a drought in 2018.
Europe’s current drought is historic. Scientists at the European Drought Observatory said the current drought is on track to be the worst in 500 years. According to the drought observatory, 47% of Europe is in drought warning conditions, meaning the soil has a moisture deficit. Another 17% is on alert, meaning the vegetation in the area is being affected by the dry conditions. Major rivers in Italy (Po), Germany (Rhine), and England (Thames) are all drying out. Water levels in the Rhine River are about half of their usual depth for this time of the year, with some sections having even lower water levels, DW reported. The outlet reported that rivers are “too dry, too low, and too warm,” which has consequences on wildlife, the economy, and people. In Italy, the prime minister said that the country is experiencing, “the most serious water crisis of the last 70 years.” In addition to the hunger stones, dropping water levels have uncovered bombs and watercraft, hazards left over from World War II.
THOUGHTS: Europe is not the only draught that has uncovered oddities. The drought in the western US has caused water levels in Lake Meade to plunge 150 feet since 2000, to their lowest since 1937 and the construction of the nearby Hoover Dam. Everything from World War II-era ships and bombs to four sets of modern skeletons have been recovered, including one stuffed in a barrel and at least one other the result of homicide. When I worked with the State Archeologist in Utah, we had the opposite result as the waters of the Great Salt Lake rose during a period of high precipitation/snow fall. The high water levels lapped along the shore and exposed dozens of Indigenous burials that had been placed beside the lake by peoples living hundreds of years ago. These were all carefully excavated and ceremonially reburied with the direction of representatives of local tribes. The rise and fall of rivers and lakes are always linked with inundation and exposure of past cultures which used the waters as a life source. This can tell us about our past and give us a warning for the future. Act for all. Change is coming and it starts with you.