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Water management expert throws doubt on French minister’s drought plan

The public will not pay for new infrastructure and local authorities do not have the expertise, says research director

Less than 1% of France’s water comes from reused wastewater, compared to 8% in Italy, 14% in Spain, and 80% in Israel Pic: APChanel / Shutterstock

Saving and reusing water will be central to coping with shortages as France develops its response to the dangers posed by climate change.

Ecology Minister Christophe Béchu has unveiled a national water plan, saying there will be “a before and after summer 2022”.

Read more: How France plans to tackle increasing water shortages

Read more: Why the month of March will be decisive for droughts in France

Groundwater levels still not returned to normal

There was 25% less rainfall than usual last year, forcing almost every French department to bring in water restrictions. Around 700 towns and villages faced difficulties with their drinking water supply.

In February, a call for vigilance on water use was issued in 17 communes in south east France.

Groundwater levels have still not returned to normal, meaning the effects are likely to be felt not only this summer but beyond, particularly if there are more summer droughts.

Mr Béchu said the objective is to reduce the volume of water from underground sources by 10% by the end of the government’s current term.

Read more: Bring in water restrictions from now, French prefects told

France is behind when it comes to reusing wastewater

One strategy under consideration is to relax the rules around using rainwater in homes, which is currently subject to strict regulations. 

This could be used, for example, for flushing toilets instead of drinking water, as now. 

Since it is much more difficult to adapt existing properties, this would require all new homes to be built with a dual water supply system, said Fabienne Trolard, research director at the national research institute for agriculture, food and environment. 

“Belgium and Germany have been doing this for 30 years,” she said, adding that lobbying from the water industry has prevented similar measures being introduced in France until now.

Mr Béchu also admitted that France is behind when it comes to reusing wastewater.

This involves water being reused directly after it is treated, such as for agriculture and watering golf courses, rather than being released back into rivers or the sea.

Read more: French golf clubs’ plea to relax rules on reusing wastewater

Less than 1% of France’s water comes from reused wastewater, compared to 8% in Italy, 14% in Spain, and 80% in Israel.

“Only 77 of the 33,000 wastewater treatment plants in France are equipped with a full recycling system,” Mr Béchu said, stopping short of announcing measures to improve this.

Reducing household consumption is key

Beyond the infrastructural costs required to reuse wastewater, Dr Trolard believes “people are not ready” for a significant increase, and it will take successive droughts for mentalities to change.

“I still don’t think people understand you can treat water five or six times without any problems,” she said. 

“When you talk to people, they don’t know anything about the water cycle, or where tap water comes from. 

“The French regulations are strict enough that people don’t ask questions about the quality of tap water.”

She said raising public awareness will also be key to reducing household consumption.

“Simple acts, like not letting the tap run while brushing your teeth, need to become habits.”

Read more: Smart water meters to be introduced to more areas in France

Water could stagnate in pipes if supply cut off like electricity

Raising public awareness around water shortages is a key pillar of the new plan and Mr Béchu revealed they are working on a digital platform that will allow people to see when there is strain on the network in their area, similar to Ecowatt for electricity.

He added that restrictions will be implemented, where necessary, “well before the summer” and will be “less restrictive and more efficient”. 

He raised the possibility of hourly, rather than daily, restrictions.

Dr Trolard warns that if the time restrictions were to be strictly enforced by cutting off the water supply, this would have sanitary consequences, leading to additional treatment costs and a loss of confidence in the quality of tap water. 

“Water could stagnate in pipes, which would become a hive of bacteria. You would need to inject massive amounts of chlorine.”

She says it would be more sensible to reduce the water pressure at key times, but adds this could have the effect of blocking pipes if the drainage system is calibrated to work with higher pressure.

Communes to become responsible by 2026

Farmers will also be asked to reduce their usage, although Mr Béchu said too many restrictions would be counterproductive, as “there is no agriculture without water”.

Hundreds of farmers protested in Perpignan in January after a court imposed stricter limits on the amount of water they could take from the river Têt for irrigating their crops.

One main water loss is via leaks, with some 20% of France’s drinking water lost in this way, and it can vary from 5% to 70% at local level.

The minister’s solution is to transfer responsibility for water management from the commune to the intercommunalité (grouping of communes), which should be the case everywhere by 2026.

“How will this work?” Dr Trolard asks. “They don’t have the expertise.”

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Drought: Building permits suspended in nine south of France communes

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