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Italy's rivers dry up and its farm fields bake as Europe's devastating heat wave exacerbates a record-setting drought

Heat burning parts of western Europe
Fires rage as European countries continue to swelter in record heat 02:35

Rome — Italy's worst drought in decades has dropped the water level in Rome's Tiber River by about five feet — parched conditions that have only been exacerbated by the deadly heat wave that gripped much of Europe this week. There were unprecedented temperatures in the United Kingdom on Tuesday, and the extreme heat stretched all the way to Athens. 

Temperatures have eased over the past couple days in much of Western Europe, helping fire crews get a handle on blazes charring tinder-dry brush in Greece, Italy and Spain.

Firefighters in Greece raced against flames to help vulnerable residents escape from their homes around Athens as a wildfire descended from the hills above. Sometimes the fires have outrun the firefighters, leaving it to locals using buckets and whatever else they can carry water in to try to defend their property.

What's driving Europe's extreme heat and deadly wildfires 06:39

But as CBS News correspondent Chris Livesay reports, in much of Europe, water is in dangerously short supply.

All around Italy's biggest river, the Po in the country's north, once-fertile fields that produced risotto rice, wine, and pasta are now brittle patches of cracked soil. Water is so scarce that a barge emerged from the depths of the Po for the first time since it was sunk during World War II.

Low water levels in River Tiber in Rome
A bird sits on the ruins of the Pons Neronianus, or Bridge of Nero, on the River Tiber in Rome, Italy, July 15, 2022. Oliver Weiken/dpa/Getty

In Rome, long-submerged ruins dating back almost 2,000 years, to the reigns of emperors Hadrian and Nero, now poke above the surface of the Tiber.

The ancient Romans used the Tiber to navigate and supply the city — even to build it. Rome simply would not exist without the river, but Livesay said the worst drought recorded in 70 years has reduced parts of it to a stagnant swamp.

Towns all around Italy have been evacuated due to wildfires, with nine cities on a heat wave alert.

The government blames climate change.

A large wildfire at the border of Miren and northeast Italy
A large wildfire on the Slovenia-Italy border is seen from Rupa, Italy, July 20, 2022. Residents in at least five villages in the area were evacuated. Luka Dakskobler/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty

In central Spain, forests are ablaze. The smoke and flames have forced thousands of people to flee their homes. Many sought shelter in a sports arena in Ávila province, including 68-year-old Fernando Gimenez.

He said he didn't know what he might find when he can eventually go back home.

"Burnt trees? Nothing? I can't even think about it," he said. "I feel, kind of, emptiness inside."

Scorching summer temps and wildfires roast Europe 03:30

The wildfires and the drought are devastating farmland, exacerbating a global food crisis made even worse by the war in Ukraine, which has seen Russia block millions of tons of grain from shipping out of the country's Black Sea ports.

It's a perfect storm of climate change and conflict, squeezing global food supplies and driving up prices, and jeopardizing millions of lives in the developing world in the process.

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