Italy’s worst drought in decades has reduced Lake Garda, the country’s largest lake, to near its lowest level ever recorded, exposing swaths of previously underwater rocks and warming the water to temperatures that approach the average in the Caribbean Sea.
Tourists flocking to the popular northern lake Friday for the start of Italy’s key summer long weekend found a vastly different landscape than in past years. An expansive stretch of bleached rock extended far from the normal shoreline, ringing the southern Sirmione Peninsula with a yellow halo between the green hues of the water and the trees on the shore.
“We came last year, we liked it, and we came back this year,” tourist Beatrice Masi said as she sat on the rocks. “We found the landscape had changed a lot. We were a bit shocked when we arrived because we had our usual walk around, and the water wasn’t there.”
Little snow or rain
Northern Italy hasn’t seen significant rainfall for months, and snowfall this year was down 70%, drying up important rivers like the Po, which flows across Italy’s agricultural and industrial heartland. Many European countries, including Spain, Germany, Portugal, France, the Netherlands and Britain, are enduring droughts this summer that have hurt farmers and shippers and promoted authorities to restrict water use.
The parched condition of the Po, Italy’s longest river, has caused billions of euros in losses to farmers who normally rely on it to irrigate fields and rice paddies.
To compensate, authorities allowed more water from Lake Garda to flow out to local rivers — 70 cubic meters (2,472 cubic feet) of water per second. But in late July, they reduced the amount to protect the lake and the financially important tourism tied to it.
With 45 cubic meters (1,589 cubic feet) of water per second being diverted to rivers, the lake on Friday was 32 centimeters (12.6 inches) above the water table, near the record lows in 2003 and 2007.
Garda Mayor Davide Bedinelli said he had to protect both farmers and the tourist industry. He insisted that the summer tourist season was going better than expected, despite cancellations, mostly from German tourists, during Italy’s latest heat wave in late July.
“Drought is a fact that we have to deal with this year, but the tourist season is in no danger,” Bendinelli wrote in a July 20 Facebook post.
He confirmed the lake was losing two centimeters (0.78 inches) of water a day.
The lake’s temperature, meanwhile, has been above average for August, according to seatemperature.org. On Friday, the Garda’s water was nearly 26 degrees Celsius (78 degrees Fahrenheit), several degrees warmer than the average August temperature of 22 C (71.6 F) and nearing the Caribbean Sea’s average of around 27 C (80 F).
For Mario Treccani, who owns a lakefront concession of beach chairs and umbrellas, the lake’s expanded shoreline means fewer people are renting his chairs since there are now plenty of rocks on which to sunbathe.
“The lake is usually a meter or more than a meter higher,” he said from the rocks.
Pointing to a small wall that usually blocks the water from the beach chairs, he recalled that on windy days, sometimes waves from the lake would splash up onto the tourists.
“It is a bit sad. Before, you could hear the noise of the waves breaking up here. Now, you don’t hear anything,” he said.
French firefighters tackled wildfires raging in the country’s southeast Saturday as officials kept a wary eye on a huge blaze that appeared to be contained farther west.
France has been buffeted this summer by a historic drought that has forced water use restrictions nationwide, as well as a series of heatwaves that experts say are being driven by climate change.
On Saturday, a reignited “virulent” fire in the Aveyron department near Toulouse forced the evacuation of more than 130 people, officials said, while another blaze in the department of Drome, south of Lyon, progressed.
The Aveyron and Drome fires have destroyed more than 1,200 hectares (3,100 acres).
A fire in the legendary Broceliande Forest in the northwestern region of Brittany, where King Arthur roamed, devastated nearly 400 hectares but officials said Saturday the fire was no longer progressing.
A 40-kilometre (25-mile) fire front in the Gironde and Landes departments around Bordeaux also “did not significantly progress overnight. Firefighters are working on its periphery,” police said in a statement.
But officials said it was premature to say that the blaze — which has already reignited once — was under control.
“We remain vigilant” because “while we can’t see huge flames, the fire continues to consume vegetation and soil,” Arnaud Mendousse, of Gironde fire and rescue, told AFP.
Officials suspect arson may have played a role in the latest flare-up, which has burned 7,400 hectares since Tuesday.
Weather forecasters are expecting thunderstorms with wind gusts of up to 60 kilometers (40 miles) an hour in the region in the evening.
The wind “could reignite the fire” that “is in a state of pause,” Mendousse warned.
In a bid to keep the situation contained, firefighters in Gironde on Saturday were busy dousing the hot and still smoking earth with water.
Authorities Saturday reopened a highway linking Bordeaux and Spain after closing a 20-kilometer stretch Wednesday.
Traditional firework displays for the Catholic Feast of the Assumption on Monday, when Mary is believed to have entered heaven, have been banned in several areas.
Corsica was lashed by winds traveling at 95 kilometers an hour overnight and hit by hail, Meteo-France said.
Forecaster Claire Chanal said the storms expected this weekend could lead to flooding and hail.
EU members including Germany, Poland, Austria and Romania have pledged reinforcements totaling 361 firefighters to join the roughly 1,100 French ones on the ground, along with several water-bombing planes from the European Union fleet.
Most of the reinforcements had arrived on the ground, with the last 146 firefighters from Poland arriving late Saturday afternoon.
“Here we are all volunteers. We’re trained, we want to help,” said Tone Neuhalfel, a German firefighter aged 36.
The Atlantic port of Brest hit 35.9 degrees Celsius (96.6 degrees Fahrenheit), a record for the month of August.
Forests off limits
In eastern France, police said Saturday they were banning entry to most forests in the Bas-Rhin region near the German border.
Cars, cyclists, hikers, hunters and fishermen are prohibited from entry until Tuesday, police said in a statement. Only residents will be able to access the area.
“It’s an extreme step in the face of an exceptional situation,” said Pierre Grandadam, president of a group that includes the Alsace forested communities.
“Everything is dry, the slightest gesture can lead to a conflagration. I’ve never seen anything like it,” said the 74-year-old.
“We’re praying for rain.”
The blaze near Bordeaux erupted in July — the driest month seen in France since 1961 — destroying 14,000 hectares and forcing thousands of people to evacuate before it was contained.
But it continued to smolder in the tinder-dry pine forests and peat-rich soil.
Fires in France in 2022 have ravaged an area three times the annual average over the past 10 years, with blazes also active in the Alpine Jura, Isere and Ardeche regions this week.
European Copernicus satellite data showed more carbon dioxide greenhouse gas — over 1 million tons — had been released from 2022’s forest fires in France than in any summer since records began in 2003.
A man went on a shooting rampage Friday in the streets of this western Montenegro city, killing 10 people, including two children, before being shot dead by a passerby, officials said.
Montenegrin police chief Zoran Brdjanin said in a video statement shared with media that the attacker was a 34-year-old man he identified only by his initials, V.B.
Brdjanin said the man used a hunting rifle to first shoot to death two children ages 8 and 11 and their mother, who lived as tenants in his house in Cetinje’s Medovina neighborhood.
The shooter then walked into the street and randomly shot 13 more people, seven of them fatally, the chief said.
“At the moment, it is unclear what provoked V.B. to commit this atrocious act,” Brdjanin said.
Andrijana Nastic, the prosecutor coordinating the crime scene investigation, told journalists that the gunman was killed by a passerby and that a police officer was among the wounded. She said nine of those killed died at the scene and two died at a hospital where they were taken for surgery.
Cetinje, the seat of Montenegro’s former royal government, is 36 kilometers west of Podogrica, the capital of the small Balkan nation.
Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic wrote on his Telegram channel that the incident was “an unprecedented tragedy” and urged the nation “to be, in their thoughts, with the families of the innocent victims, their relatives, friends and all the people of Cetinje.”
President Milo Djukanovic said on Twitter that he was “deeply moved by the news of the terrible tragedy” in Cetinje, calling for “solidarity” with the families who lost loved ones in the incident.
The United Nations is calling for immediate access to a nuclear power plant as Russia and Ukraine again Friday accused the other of firing weapons near the plant.
Ukrainian officials said Russian forces fired more than 40 rockets at the city of Marhanets, which is across the Dnieper River from the power plant.
The region’s governor, Valentyn Reznichenko, said three civilians, including a 12-year-old boy, were wounded in the attack.
Russia accuses Ukraine of firing at the plant.
Heavy fighting and artillery shelling in the area of the plant were reported Friday.
The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said there’s “a real risk of nuclear disaster” unless the fighting stops and inspectors are allowed inside the facility.
“This is a serious hour, a grave hour,” IAEA Chief Rafael Grossi said late Thursday during a U.N. Security Council meeting. “The IAEA must urgently be allowed to conduct a mission to Zaporizhzhia.”
Russian forces who occupy the plant have been accused of using it as a shield to fire at Ukrainian army positions. Heavy shelling in areas near the plant has been reported over the past two weeks.
Russian soldiers control the facility, but Ukrainian staff are continuing to operate the plant.
“We know that the Russians have been there for some time. We also know that the Russians have fired artillery, I think specifically rockets, from around the power plant,” a senior U.S. military official told reporters Friday, refuting Russian allegations that the plant has been targeted by Ukrainian forces.
“I don’t have any belief that the Ukrainians, who know very well what the impacts of hitting that power plant would be, have an interest in hitting the power plant,” the official added.
Separately, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned in a statement that the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant “must not be used as part of any military operation.”
“Urgent agreement is needed at a technical level on a safe perimeter of demilitarization to ensure the safety of the area,” he added.
In other developments, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Friday urged the United States and other countries to label Russia a state sponsor of terrorism, saying in his nightly video address, “After everything that the occupiers have done in Ukraine, there can be only one approach to Russia — as a terrorist state.”
A senior Russian official said Friday that ties between Moscow and Washington would be badly damaged if the U.S. Senate were to pass a law labeling Russia a state sponsor of terrorism.
The action would be “the most serious collateral damage for bilateral diplomatic relations, to the point of downgrading and even breaking them off,” Russia’s Tass news agency quoted Alexander Darchiyev, head of the North American department at the Russian Foreign Ministry, as saying.
Meanwhile, a senior Ukrainian official claimed 60 Russian pilots and technicians were killed and 100 people were wounded at the Russian-operated Saki military air base in western Crimea on Tuesday.
Russia claims that only munitions stored at the airfield exploded, but Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s minister of internal affairs, told The New York Times on Friday that was “a blatant lie.”
The U.S. on Friday said its own assessment indicated that several Russian fighter jets, several Russian fighter-bombers and a Russian surveillance aircraft were destroyed, along with a “pretty significant cache of munitions.”
Satellite images taken earlier this week showed several fighter jets and at least five bombers destroyed at the base, according to a British military intelligence report.
Some information for this report came from Reuters, The Associated Press and Agence France-Presse.
The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine has been shelled in recent days, opening up the possibility of a grave accident about 500 kilometers from the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident, the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
On Thursday United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on both Russia and Ukraine to halt all fighting near the plant after fresh shelling that day.
What is it?
The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant has six Soviet-designed water-cooled and water-moderated reactors containing Uranium 235, which has a half-life of more than 700 million years.
It is Europe’s biggest nuclear power plant and one of the biggest in the world. Construction began in 1980 and its sixth reactor was connected to the grid in 1995.
As of July 22, just two of its reactors were operating, according to the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA).
What are the risks to the reactors?
The biggest risk to the reactors is from a drop in water supply.
Pressurized water is used to transfer heat away from the reactor and to slow down neutrons to enable the Uranium 235 to continue its chain reaction.
If the water was cut, and auxiliary systems such as diesel generators failed to keep the reactor cool due to an attack, then the nuclear reaction would slow though the reactor would heat up very swiftly.
At such high temperatures, hydrogen could be released from the zirconium cladding and the reactor could start to melt down.
However, experts say the building housing the reactors is designed to contain radiation and withstand major impacts, meaning the risk of a major leak there is still limited.
“I do not believe there would be a high probability of a breach of the containment building even if it was accidentally struck by an explosive shell and even less likely the reactor itself could be damaged by such. This means the radioactive material is well protected,” said Mark Wenman, Reader in Nuclear Materials at Nuclear Energy Futures, Imperial College London.
What about the spent fuel?
Besides the reactors, there is also a dry spent fuel storage facility at the site for used nuclear fuel assemblies and spent fuel pools at each reactor site which are used to cool down the used nuclear fuel.
“The basins of spent fuel are just big pools with uranium fuel rods in them — they are really hot depending on how long they have been there,” said Kate Brown, an environmental historian at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology whose book Manual for Survival documents the full scale of the Chernobyl disaster.
“If fresh water is not put in then the water will evaporate. Once the water evaporates then the zirconium cladding will heat up and it can catch on fire and then we have a bad situation — a fire of irradiated uranium which is very like the Chernobyl situation releasing a whole complex of radioactive isotopes.”
An emission of hydrogen from a spent fuel pool caused an explosion at reactor 4 in Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011.
According to a 2017 Ukrainian submission to the IAEA, there were 3,354 spent fuel assemblies at the dry spent fuel facility and around 1,984 spent fuel assemblies in the pools.
That is a total of more than 2,200 tons of nuclear material excluding the reactors, according to the document.
Who controls it?
After invading Ukraine February 24, Russian forces took control of the plant in early March.
Ukrainian staff continue to operate it, but special Russian military units guard the facility and Russian nuclear specialists give advice.
The International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) has warned that the staff are operating under extremely stressful conditions.
If there was a nuclear accident, it is unclear who would deal with it during a war, said Brown.
“We don’t know what happens in a wartime situation when we have a nuclear emergency,” Brown said. “In 1986 everything was running as well as it ran in the Soviet Union so they could mobilize tens of thousands of people and equipment and emergency vehicles to the site.
“Who would be taking charge of that operation right now?”
What has happened so far?
The plant was struck in March but there was no radiation leak, and the reactors were intact. Both Russia and Ukraine blamed each other for that strike.
In July, Russia said Ukraine had repeatedly struck the territory of the plant with drones and missiles. Pro-Ukrainian social media said “kamikaze drones” had struck Russian forces near the plant.
Reuters was unable to immediately verify battlefield accounts of either side.
August 5: The plant was shelled twice. Power lines were damaged. An area near the reactors was hit.
Russia said that Ukraine’s 45th Artillery Brigade also struck the territory of the plant with 152-millimeter shells from the opposite side of the Dnipro river. Ukraine’s state nuclear power company, Energoatom, said Russia fired at the plant with rocket-propelled grenades.
August 6: Shelled again, possibly twice. An area next to the dry spent nuclear fuel storage facility was hit.
Energoatom said Russia fired rockets at the plant. The Russian forces said Ukraine struck it with a 220-millimeter Uragan rocket launcher.
August 7: Shelled again.
Russia said Ukraine’s 44th Artillery Brigade struck the plant, damaging a high-voltage line. Russia’s defense ministry said power at reactors 5 and 6 was reduced to 500 megawatts.
August 11: Shelled again.Ukraine’s Energoatom said it was struck five times, Russian-appointed officials said it was struck twice during a shift changeover.
German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht said in a statement that because Malian leaders of the U.N. mission to Mali, MINUSMA, denied overflight rights, the German mission must stop all reconnaissance and transport operations until further notice.
The comments from Lambrecht were posted Friday to the defense ministry’s Twitter account.
In them, Lambrecht said she had spoken with Malian Defense Minister Sadio Camara, “to describe to him the irritations” about problems with denial of flight permissions.
Lambrecht also said that “Germany can only stay involved with MINUSMA in Mali if this doesn’t happen again and we are welcome in the country.”
Germany provides more than 1,000 soldiers to the U.N. mission to Mali.
There was no immediate comment from Malian and MINUSMA officials.
The episode is another sign of tension between Mali’s military rulers and foreign military forces stationed in Mali to help stabilize the country.
In July, Mali arrested 49 soldiers from Ivory Coast who came to Mali to support a U.N. contingent, calling them “mercenaries.” After MINUSMA spokesperson Olivier Salgado said on Twitter that Mali had been notified of the soldiers’ arrival, he was expelled from the country.
French forces are in the final stages of withdrawing from Mali, following increasing tensions with the government and concerns over Mali working with mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a private Russian military company with ties to the Kremlin. The government has said it works only with official Russian instructors.
Earlier this week, Mali received a shipment of military aircraft from Russia, the latest of multiple shipments of aircraft and weapons from the country’s new ally in the decade-long fight against Islamist insurgents.
While many countries cut diplomatic ties with Afghanistan after the Taliban’s return to power last year, Turkey, the only NATO member with a diplomatic presence in the war-torn country, has been active on many fronts.
Recently, the second phase of the Kajaki hydroelectric dam in Helmand province was completed by the Turkish company 77 Construction, which has invested $160 million in the project.
Several senior Taliban officials attended the opening ceremonies for the dam, including Abdul Ghani Baradar and Abdul Salam Hanafi, acting deputy prime ministers of the Taliban government. Turkey’s ambassador in Kabul, Cihad Erginay, also was present.
“Although the Kajaki dam is an important investment in economic relations between our country and Afghanistan, our relations are more diverse and deeper,” Erginay said during the ceremony, adding that total trade volume between the countries increased 23% in the first six months of 2022.
Some experts think that Turkey’s engagement with Afghanistan derives from the countries’ shared diplomatic legacy, which dates back to modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and Afghanistan’s modernist king Amanullah Khan in the 1920s.
“That positive legacy has throughout all these years never been interrupted,” Alper Coskun, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told VOA.
From 2001 until the Taliban returned to power in August 2021, Turkey had taken part in NATO-led forces in Afghanistan.
“Turkey took a very deliberate position in ensuring that Turkish forces were not involved in [active warfare or lethal force] against the Afghan population in any way whatsoever,” Coskun said. “That, I believe, is something that the current regime in Afghanistan, the Taliban, are also cognizant of.”
Turkey withdrew its troops from Afghanistan before the Taliban’s August 2021 deadline for foreign forces to leave the country.
According to Turkey’s Defense Ministry, one of the Turkish soldiers’ final assignments in Afghanistan was to provide “operational and force protection services” in Kabul at what was then known as the Hamid Karzai International Airport, since renamed the Kabul Airport.
Senior Turkish authorities have repeatedly shown interest in running the airport.
Last August, U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that “a secure, operational airport we feel is integral to our ability to have a functioning diplomatic presence on the ground. So, the safety, the security, the continuing operation of that airport — it is of high importance to us.”
“We are grateful that our Turkish partners have indicated a willingness to play a role in protecting that,” Price added.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said during a NATO summit in Madrid in June that Turkey had offered to operate the airport with Qatar and the United Arab Emirates but was awaiting the group’s response.
On July 7, however, Reuters quoted sources familiar with the negotiations saying the Taliban was close to handing all airport operations to the United Arab Emirates.
Some experts say Turkey’s proposal was significant even though the bid fell through.
“It’s no small matter that Turkey was one of just a few countries in a position to be negotiating an accord to provide security at the Kabul Airport,” said Michael Kugelman, the deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center.
“That accord didn’t work out, but the fact that Turkey was even involved was significant, especially as the Taliban have made clear that they won’t allow any foreign security presence on their soil,” he told VOA.
Turkey has not formally recognized the Taliban, and Kugelman thinks that Turkey does not want to be the first to do so, considering “some reputational costs.”
On the other hand, Turkey hosted Amir Khan Muttaqi, the Taliban’s acting foreign minister, for high-level talks in October and the Antalya Diplomacy Forum, organized by the Turkish Foreign Ministry, in March.
On the sidelines of the forum, Thomas West, U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, met Muttaqi and Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani to talk about Washington’s Afghanistan policy.
West on Twitter thanked Turkey for hosting the event and said that “I look forward to discussions with important partners regarding international engagement with Afghanistan.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said after his meeting with Muttaqi, “We have told the international community about the importance of engagement with the Taliban administration. In fact, recognition and engagement are two different things.”
Turkey has advised the Taliban to form an inclusive government and ensure girls’ education under its rule. Ankara has also repeatedly talked about the importance of stability in Afghanistan to prevent additional refugee flow into Turkey.
“Our country, which is currently hosting around 5 million foreigners — 3.6 million of whom have come from Syria — cannot shoulder a new migration burden originating from Afghanistan,” Erdogan said at the G-20 meeting on Afghanistan in October.
According to figures from Turkey’s Presidency of Migration Management, Turkish authorities arrested around 70,000 irregular Afghan migrants in 2021.
Speaking at the 15th annual summit of the Economic Cooperation Organization in November, Erdogan also said that the Afghan economy should be revitalized to prevent a refugee crisis, adding that Turkey supports “efforts aimed at keeping basic state structures, including critical sectors such as health care and education, functioning.”
Since the Taliban’s return to power a year ago, Turkey’s state-run Disaster and Emergency Management Authority has sent five charity trains with 5,570 tons of humanitarian aid to the war-torn country. The Turkish Red Crescent, which has been operating in Afghanistan, has delivered aid assistance to people affected by the 6.1 magnitude earthquake on June 22.
Active in Afghanistan since 2005 and with offices in Kabul, Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif, Turkey’s state-run Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency has recently delivered 2,000 aid kits to help malnourished Afghan children.
Turkey also exerts soft power in Afghanistan via the Yunus Emre Institute, a cultural center owned by the Turkish government; Diyanet, the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs; and at least 46 Afghan-Turk Maarif Schools in seven provinces.
Twelve of these schools had been owned by the Gulen movement, a group Turkey blames for a failed coup attempt in 2016, but the Afghan government transferred the schools to the Turkish government’s Maarif Foundation in 2018.
Azarakhsh Hafizi, former head of the international relations committee at Afghanistan’s Chamber of Commerce and Industries, calls the Turkey-run schools “near to international standards,” adding, “The youth of Afghanistan need these services.”
Some analysts say, however, that one of the reasons Ankara has active public diplomacy in Afghanistan is because it wants to boost its domestic popularity.
“Ankara likes to see itself as a world player, and so having its foundations and education apparatuses participating in Afghanistan is a good … domestic political checkmark to show that it has an active foreign policy,” said Aaron Stein, director of research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
But Stein thinks Ankara’s Afghanistan policy does not resonate with the Turkish public.
“They care about the cost of living rather than foreign policy in that sense,” he told VOA. “They are a lot like everybody else around the world, like, ‘Our cost of living is skyrocketing. Take care of that. We don’t care about what’s going on in Afghanistan.’”
This story originated in VOA’s Turkish Service.