Maximum alert: Drought crisis declared in parts of southern France

Parts of Occitanie were put on the highest drought alert level on Friday as politicians warn of a ‘human and ecological catastrophe’

Two areas of Pyrénées-Orientales department are now on ‘crisis’ alert level for drought
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Part of the Pyrénées-Orientales department (Occitanie) is now on a ‘crisis’ alert level for drought, its prefect announced on Friday (April 28).

The alert will enter into force from May 10, said Rodrigue Furcy at a press conference.

The ‘crisis’ level is the highest alert level possible (of four levels). The Têt and Agly areas are affected so far, both in the northern half of the department.

On its website, the Ecological Transition Ministry explains that this high level is “declared to preserve water for priority use”.

“To do this in April is extremely early,” Serge Zaka, an agro-climatologist, told Le Figaro. “This level is generally reached in July or August in this department, and even then, not every year.

“But this crisis level in this department could have been justified as early as two months ago, or even a year ago.”

Mr Zaka said the high alert level was a “drastic” action, designed to save as much water as possible.

A crisis alert level means:

  • No non-priority water use, including for farming
  • No water use for anything other than priority reasons (health, hygiene, or national security)

The department was already placed on ‘reinforced or heightened alert level’, the second-highest level. This meant individuals were already banned from watering their gardens, filling up swimming pools, or cleaning their vehicles (outside of established car washes).

The decision to impose an alert on a department is “taken at the local level by prefects”, states the government website Propluvia. “Drought decrees can only be set for a limited period, in a set area.”

Even within the same department, drought alerts and decrees can be handled differently. For example, currently, 19 communes in Bouches-du-Rhône are at ‘crisis level’ alert, while 28 communes are in a state of ‘alert’ (second-lowest), and the rest of Bouches-du-Rhône is at ‘vigilance’ level (the lowest level).

The alerts, especially at lower levels, are intended to raise awareness among the public and to prepare them in case more restrictions are needed.

Water shortages already biting

Water shortages are already affecting certain villages in the department, said Mr Furcy. Already, “around 20 communes” are experiencing water tension, or will be “by the end of the summer”, he said.

Four communes are without water completely, with their water undrinkable, even when it does come out of the taps. These are Bas-Confluent, Corbère, Corbère-les-Cabanes, and Saint-Michel-de-Llotes, in a situation affecting 3,000 people.

Read more: Tap water ban in four villages in southern France as shortages bite

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

It comes after department president Hermeline Malherbe warned of an “ecological and human catastrophe today” and an “ecological catastrophe tomorrow”, due to the drought situation in the area. She wrote an open warning letter to President Macron, highlighting that the department has not had any significant rainfall in over a year.

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

Earlier this month, the department was hit by France’s first major forest fire of the year. Ecological Transition Minister Christophe Béchu visited the region yesterday (Thursday, April 27).

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

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