Drought-hit French department in plea to prevent ‘human catastrophe’

The president of Pyrénées-Orientales says the southern department has not had any major rain for more than a year

Experts warn that farming and tourism, as well as human lives, could be at risk due to growing drought
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French President Emmanuel Macron has been called on to “prevent a human catastrophe” in a drought-hit department in southern France.

Hermeline Malherbe, president of Pyrénées-Orientales, said there had been “no major rain” there “for more than a year”.

In an open letter to Mr Macron, she called for a “solidarity fund” to be put in place to avoid what she called “an ecological catastrophe today and an economic one tomorrow”.

The funds would help the farming and tourism sectors to survive the extreme conditions, she said.

She warned that a “human catastrophe” was on the way this summer because the department is fighting unprecedented drought and facing a high risk of wildfires.

In mid-April, the department suffered France’s first major forest blaze of the season, which destroyed over 900 hectares of vegetation.

Read also: France will soon roll out a ‘wildfire risk map’. How will it work?

Already, four communes in the department - around 3,000 people - are without drinking water due to the usual supplies being too low. An alternative was connected but the water is not yet safe to drink. Residents are now having to get bottled water delivered.

Water restrictions are already in place, especially for farmers, despite the department relying on fruit and vegetable production as a major industry (including peaches, nectarines, apricots, artichokes, tomatoes, aubergines, and courgettes).

Read more: Neighbours tell on each other as drought rules bite in southern France

It comes amid worsening drought across much of the country, with Ecology Minister Christophe Béchu having announced in February that more restrictions would come by the summer and that prefects needed to bring in water restrictions as soon as possible.

You can check the drought alert level, and any possible restrictions, in force in your area at the government’s Propluvia website here.

Read more: How bad is the drought in France? See restrictions in your department

In late March, Mr Macron announced the government’s Plan Eau, which he said would focus on rewarding people who use water responsibly, improve water level monitoring, tackle water leaks, and boost the use of wastewater for appropriate tasks from 1% today to 10% by 2030.

Climate expert warns of ‘catastrophes’

It comes after a French climate expert warned the current heatwave in Spain and early drought in France could trigger a “sequence of catastrophes”.

Robert Vautard, a climatologist and researcher at French institute the CNRS told FranceInfo: “With such an early drought, we’re fearing a sequence of catastrophes.”

He said that it could cause “a domino effect of issues that could happen during this end of spring and into summer”.

Mr Vautard said that the heatwave in Spain was a “clear” sign of global warming and that the consequences could include farming losses, wildfires, and water shortages.

He said: “Extreme temperatures in Western Europe, and particularly in France, have increased by about 4 to 5 degrees since the 1950s. Spain is clearly undergoing aridification, as are all Mediterranean regions.

“The Mediterranean is especially vulnerable to desertification in particular.”

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