Q&A: Just how bad is the drought situation in France?

The Local
The Local - [email protected] • 17 May, 2019 Updated Fri 17 May 2019 12:12 CEST
Q&A: Just how bad is the drought situation in France?

French local governments have already imposed water restrictions in some regions of France after drought has hit. But it never seems to stop raining. Where has all the water gone?


Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink - what’s going on with French water?

France, and particularly the greater Paris region of Ile-de-France has been experiencing a particularly wet and wintery spring. May has so far been a month of deluging rainfall and even hailstorms. However, there have been critical drought notices issued already. And it is still over a month until summer officially begins.

On May 14th, François de Rugy, Minister for Ecological Transition, and Secretary of State Emmanuelle Wargon, had a meeting with the National Water Committee. And there was just one topic on the agenda: this summer’s drought arriving earlier than expected.


France hit by drought: What you need to know about water restrictions Photo: AFP

What areas are most at risk?

In 11 departments, mainly in a belt across central France, measures have already been taken to officially restrict water due to scarcity.

The Indre is on red alert - the highest drought warning. The Pyrénées-Orientales and Vienne are on orange alert. The north region, Charente-Maritime, Charente, Deux-Sèvres, Creuse, Rhône, Ain, and Isère have a basic level alert. And six other departments have also been issued warnings.

What has caused this?

Drought occurs when the amount of rain is significantly less than normal over a fairly long period of time. When rainfall is lacking in winter or spring, it prevents the proper filling of groundwater ("reserves" of water) that usually occurs at this time of year.

And groundwater levels are now abnormally low. Yes, it has rained exceptionally for May and the earth feels wet and sodden and vegetation is abundantly exploding, but it’s all a ruse. This is just surface water and there is a critical lack of it down below.

February was a particularly dry month and, by spring, plants were already running out of water. Recent rains have meant that some farmers haven’t needed to irrigate crops, but it is not enough to make up for the water shortage.

"We've been in this same situation for the past two or three years. We start spring with a water deficit," says Georges Cornuez, who works in green zones in Lentilly (Rhône). “There is also more and more wind, and that doesn't help.”

French rain in numbers:

France receives about 400 billion m3 of rainwater each year, two-thirds of which evaporates. The remaining 175 billion m3 is used to supply surface and groundwater.

The flow of France's rivers has remained reasonably stable over the past few decades, though the level of lake has clearly dropped in recent years. And the amount of water in groundwater can vary depending on the level of withdrawal and renewal rate of groundwater.

Photo: richlonardo/Depositphotos

Is this any different to previous years?

According to the Ministry for Ecological Transition, this year France has a 17 percent rainfall deficit compared to a normal year. "We know that we are likely to have problems with water every year now because of climate change," says Wargon.

She believes that there has to be an urgent improvement in water management in France.

"How do we best share resources? How do we allow water retention but not under any conditions and how can we save more money? These are the key questions we need to address," says the minister, who says she is preparing a medium- and also a long-term roadmap.

What’s the outlook for summer? Hosepipe ban?

Well, it looks pretty arid.

"We have no water for the summer. Vegetation grows as fast as it rains and in fact it consumes all this rain. This means any new water can’t get down to the groundwater table,” explains Stéphane Peillet, a cereal farmer and vice-president in charge of water management at the Chamber of Agriculture.

“We are currently collecting from the Jonage canal to bring water from the Rhône to avoid farmers being dependent on the water table. The idea is to leave that water for other uses, drinking water, industry.”

Add into this the weather predictions from now until July. Météo-France's forecasts are not very reassuring. Temperatures from May to July over metropolitan France look set to be above normal. The French government is already preparing for a drought.

Fill up your saucepans.

French words to know 

Drought - la sécheresse

Rainfall - la hauteur de précipitations

Groundwater - les eaux souterraines


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[email protected] 2019/05/17 22:15
"nappe phréatique" (water table) is a good term to be familiar with, too

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