How France plans to tackle increasing water shortages

‘Nature is leaving us no option’ said the Ecology Minister as water table levels remain historically low. Only 1% of water is reused in France

Published Last updated

Key measures of France’s plan to save water have been unveiled as the country experiences increasing shortages of the essential resource.

Ecology Minister Christophe Béchu presented the government’s Plan national Eau ahead of a meeting with representatives from the sector in an interview with Le Parisien newspaper.

Here are some of the key points he made:

  • The summer of 2022 marked a “before and after” point. “Almost all departments were affected by restriction measures and 700 communes had difficulty getting drinking water,”
  • This is likely to get worse. Our natural water resources are set to reduce by 10-40% by 2050. “Nature isn’t leaving us any choice,” he said.
  • The government is working on improving the quantity and quality of available water and managing crises better.
  • Aims include reduction in the volume of water taken from underground sources by 10% by the end of the government’s current term. This would represent a drop of four billion metres cubed per year.
  • The government is asking farmers to be careful with water usage. However, he said that “it would be hypocritical to impose too many restrictions” as “there is no agriculture without water”, and too much restriction would lead to water imports.
  • A type of ‘water Ecowatt’ (an app to help individuals monitor their water usage at home, in the same way as Ecowatt shows energy usage) is under development.
  • The government is focusing on containing leaks. With 5-70% (and 20% nationally) of drinking water being lost due to leaks, this is a major priority, Mr Béchu said. “We must fix black spots and ensure local authorities take responsibility,” he said.
  • Increase the amount of water reused in France. Only 1% of water is reused in France, compared to 10% in Italy, 20% in Spain, and more than 90% in Israel. Only 77 out of 33,000 water treatment centres can recycle water completely. Recycled water would apply to grey water (lightly-dirty household water) and rainwater.
  • Use this lightly-dirty water for tasks such as flushing toilets, which currently use drinking water.
  • Development of a tool that shows water levels in real-time. Currently France is lacking this
  • Water restrictions to be enacted long before summer. This means they will be less stringent but more effective, the minister explained.

Mr Béchu said: “I don’t get up in the morning and think, ‘It would be good to force people in France to consume less water.’ But it’s a consequence of climate change, that we all need to adapt to. We must get used to, as the president has said, the end of ‘total abundance’, including for water.”

Climate change and water cycles

The effect of climate change on water cycles can be complex, said expert Alexis Guilpart. He told Le Parisien: “The renewable resource of water [the water that doesn’t evaporate and remains in the rivers and water table level] has already dropped by 14% between the decades 2000-2010, and 2010-2020.”

Mr Guilpart, who is from the France Nature Environment Association – which is pushing the government to take more action on the issue – said that summer 2022 had been an “electroshock” that worsened the situation dramatically.

It was a ‘perfect storm’ of a lack of rainfall, historic drought, and heatwaves, which lowered existing water levels even further. All signals are on ‘red’, he said, with water table levels dangerously low. Only intense, prolonged rainfall will change the trend, he added.

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

People in France and water use

It comes as a new study by the Institut Toluna and Harris Interactive found that the majority of people in France are aware of the gravity of the water shortage situation and the tension in water supply.

The majority even said they were actively worried about the issue with three-quarters saying they were “anxious about being confronted by restrictions and shortages in drinking water in future”.

A third of the country is currently classed as experiencing water shortages with the area consuming more than it can provide itself. The situation is especially severe in the southwest but the problem is also acute in Normandy and Calvados.

Another study found that two-thirds of the population is reducing their daily water use. However, the majority of people (64%) thought that they used fewer than 100 litres per day, whereas the actual figure is closer to 150 litres on average, per person per day.

Some towns are also taking widespread action. The town of Niort (Deux-Sèvres) managed to reduce its consumption by 50% simply by paying more attention to, and fixing, leaks, said Mr Guilpart.

Farmers are also being asked to reduce water usage as they are typically the largest individual users of water.

Philippe Jougla, from the farming union FNSEA, said that climate change was happening, and would lead to “water wars”. Already, some sectors have faced ‘water battles’ in recent years and months, including major conflict and opposition to huge water basin plans for farmers, and controversy over the use of snow cannons in ski resorts.

Water problems have also started to beset some towns in France. The 1,000-inhabitant town of Berrien, in Finistère, saw unprecedented drought in 2022, causing wildfires and a major lack of drinking water.

Abnormal rainfall and soaring temperatures of up to 41C in the summer meant that the town suffered a period without any local drinking water at all. People could use local water to wash but not to drink or use for cooking.

The mayor was forced to organise water distributions of 900 bottles every week.

Read also: ‘You have to change your lifestyle’: tips to cut water usage in France

Ways to reduce water use in your home include:

  • Installing water-limiting pressure devices in taps and showerheads
  • Taking showers rather than baths
  • Using eco modes on washing machines and dishwashers
  • Watering plants by hand or using drip-water systems

Related articles

Drought in France: 2023 set to be ‘very dry year’ and it starts now

Vigilance, alert, crisis: what France’s four drought warnings mean