Drought alerts have been introduced in several areas of western and southeastern France as a preemptive measure, following a particularly dry start to the year.
This is affecting several communes in Drôme, Alpes-Maritimes, Bouches-du-Rhône, Vaucluse, Vienne, Charente-Maritime, Charente and Maine-et-Loire, which are under ‘alerte’ level restrictions. Residents there are told to reduce the amount of water they use for certain purposes.
This includes watering gardens, golf courses and other green spaces, and washing cars.
The amount of water used for agricultural ends will also have to be cut by up to 50%.
Parts of Vienne, Charente-Maritime, Charente and Ain have been placed under an ‘alerte renforcée’ (reinforced alert), meaning that they will be subject to tighter restrictions.
Depending on the rules in the commune in question, residents may be required to further limit the water they put to non-essential uses, and farmers could have to reduce their usage by 50% or more.
The Réal de Jouques area of Bouches-du-Rhône has for its part been put on ‘crise’ (crisis) level restrictions, meaning that people should only use water for essential purposes such as drinking, cooking and washing.
You can find out more about water restrictions in different parts of France by visiting the ecological transition ministry’s Propluvia website.
A dry start to the year
In March, national weather service Météo France stated that “the pluviometer was in a more than 25% deficit over most of the country,” and the amount of rain which had fallen since the beginning of the year “reflected quantities inferior to the norm across most of the country.”
The only parts of France which are not seeing their soil dry up are the Pyrenees and Languedoc-Roussillon. Elsewhere, the lack of rain has a “strong [impact] on the water table,” said the Bureau de recherche géologique minière in a recent statement.
Météo France’s forecasts for the next three months do not inspire optimism, as: “in the months from April to June 2022, hotter and drier weather than normal is probable.
“The rise in temperatures, the regrowth of vegetation and so the increase in evapotranspiration will clearly limit the infiltration of rain [into the soil] over the coming weeks.”
The situation is most worrying in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, which has seen its driest new year since 1959 this year, according to the Chaîne Météo forecast service, with only 64mm of rain falling on average between January 1 and April 10.
“This rain deficit, which is reaching 60-80% compared to normal, is affecting Bouches-du-Rhône, Var and Alpes-Maritimes especially,” said Chaîne Météo meteorologist Cyrille Duchesne.
“In certain areas, the water table is at a 30-50% deficit,” meaning that stream and river flow is low and “Mistral wind episodes are drying out the ground and vegetation even more.”
This means that farmers had to begin irrigating their land in March, almost two months earlier than they normally would.
Even if a lot of rain fell between now and the summer, the water would not replenish the water table, “so there is a real risk of a difficult summer for the south east, with water restrictions which could be extended and reinforced.”
Mr Duchesne added that the current situation cannot be immediately attributed to climate change, as it may simply be a reflection of yearly fluctuations in temperature and rainfall.
However, “global warming is not helping: the more we have hot periods, the more they will have a knock on effect on dry periods.”
Météo France predicts that in the long term, droughts could get five days (30%) longer each year by the end of the century, even if greenhouse gas emissions are reduced.
How do drought warnings and restrictions work?
‘Vigilance’ (or ‘warning’) is the lowest level of drought restriction in France, and involves raising awareness and encouraging individuals to reduce their water usage.
The next level is ‘alert’, which leads to a reduction in the amount of water which can be used for farming and for watering green spaces such as golf courses.
This is followed by ‘reinforced alert’, which tightens the above restrictions and could also lead to some usages being temporarily banned.
The final restriction level is ‘crisis’, under which water may only be used for essential reasons.
In times of drought, the ministry of agriculture can decide to recognise a state of “agricultural calamity” and compensate farmers for up to 30% of their ruined crops.