High And Dry: Swiss Army Airlifts Water To Cows In Drought-Stricken Mountains : The Salt Water scarcity and heat are threatening two of Switzerland's main agricultural products: milk and cheese. But the shortage affects far more than cows — Swiss glaciers also feed Europe's major rivers.

High And Dry: Swiss Army Airlifts Water To Cows In Drought-Stricken Mountains

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All this week, we are looking into water - who has it, who doesn't. A severe drought in Europe this summer hit the Swiss Alps. People in the area had enough water to get by, but it was a different story for their cows. While herds of cattle grazed the high pastures in the Alps, many cows ran out of water. So the farmers, with help from the government and the Swiss Army, organized trucks and even helicopters to help out. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley sends this report.


ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: This is the sound of Switzerland in the summertime.


BEARDSLEY: For centuries between late May and early October, the country's cows have been brought up to graze in the high mountain pastures. Dairy farmer Dominique Rochat says his 110 cows love the succulent grass up here at 4,500 feet. He says summer mountain grazing also gives farmers a chance to harvest enough hay in the plains below for their cows in winter. Rochat says this summer could have been a disaster.

DOMINIQUE ROCHAT: (Through interpreter) A milk cow can drink 40 to 50 gallons a day, so my herd consumes up to 1,300 gallons a day up here when it's hot. Our government reacted just in time with these water deliveries. It's allowing us to keep our cows in the high mountains through the end of the season. That's doubly important because with this drought and the poor harvest, we have no hay to spare in the valley.

BEARDSLEY: Rochat's chalet is about an hour's drive north of Lausanne up a narrow, twisting mountain road much too perilous for a water truck. This morning's water delivery by helicopter has been cancelled due to fog.


BEARDSLEY: So Rochat shows me a video he took of last week's delivery. He says the Swiss Army helicopter scooped 2,000 gallons from Lake Neuchatel in a giant red bag, then flew it up the mountainside.

ROCHAT: (Through interpreter) Look. It's spectacular the way the pilot lowers the copter down and the vigilance of the people on the ground to control the water bag so we could fill up the cistern. It's not something you see every day around here.

BEARDSLEY: But water deliveries by helicopter and by truck were needed almost daily in Switzerland this August. Traditionally, farmers collect rainwater and snowmelt in cisterns for use in summer months, but that system was no match for the scorching heat wave this year. According to the Swiss Weather Service, July and August 2018 are the driest on record since 1921 while temperatures haven't been so consistently hot since the 1880s. Martin Beniston is a climatologist who recently retired from the University of Geneva.

MARTIN BENISTON: In the 20th century, heat waves of this intensity would occur maybe once in 10 or 15 years. And now we've had, like, four or five major heat waves since the big 2003 heat wave. So definitely things are changing rather rapidly. It's as if we were having a sort of northward shift of Mediterranean-type climate to the north of the Alps.


BEARDSLEY: The tiny village of Saint-George lies below the mountain pastures in the Swiss canton of Vaud. Forest ranger Eric Treboux has an office near the village church. Treboux says the repercussions of the water shortage go beyond cows.

ERIC TREBOUX: (Through interpreter) Switzerland is known as the water tower of Europe because we have the Alps with all the glaciers. Snowmelt and runoff from the glaciers feeds rivers like Rhone, the Rhine, the Po and the Danube. Europe's major rivers all have their source here.

BEARDSLEY: Treboux says less snow and receding glaciers will continue to affect agriculture, but the phenomenon will also affect other things dependent on water, like hydroelectric power and tourism.


BEARDSLEY: Back at Rochat's mountain chalet, I meet Jacques Henchoz, director of agriculture for the canton of Vaud.

JACQUES HENCHOZ: (Through interpreter) The Swiss are herders, and our agricultural economy is based on grazing and milk and cheese production. But with the weather getting hotter and drier over the last 20 years, things are changing.

BEARDSLEY: Henchoz says providing water in the high pastures for dairy cows is going to be the biggest challenge facing Swiss farmers this century. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News in the canton of Vaud, Switzerland.

SHAPIRO: Tomorrow, the biggest city in Mexico is sinking - more stories from the water front all week.

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