‘No region has been spared’: Why the dry weather in France is causing concern

France is used to long, hot summers. The French are even used to water restrictions. But the warm, dry conditions right now, after another dry winter could have implications beyond not being allowed to water your tomatoes.

'No region has been spared': Why the dry weather in France is causing concern
French farmers fear this year's wheat harvest could be hit by the current hot, dry spell. (Photo: Joel Saget / AFP)

The Local reported on the unusually early spell of warm weather earlier this week and concerns over water levels as temperatures passed 30C in the southwest of the country for the first time this year. Since that report, the number of départements under water restrictions because of drought has risen from 10 to 15. One area in the east of Bouches-du-Rhône is already at ‘crisis’ level.

National forecaster Meteo-France said the country was in the grip of a hot spell that is “notable for its timing, its duration and its geographical spread”, and had recorded a 20-percent drop in rainfall nationally between September 2021 and April 2022.

French farmers are worried about their harvests. France is the EU’s biggest wheat exporter, and one of the top five in the world. But hopes that French farmers would be able to offset at least some of the shortfall in the world’s supply of grain following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have been hit by the record low rainfall so far this year, which have prompted warnings of a large drop in yields.

The hot, dry conditions could not have come at a worse time. On Monday, France’s Agriculture Ministry warned about the impact of an unseasonably hot and dry stretch which it said “will have an impact on cereal production” in France following lower-than-average winter rainfall.

As well as wheat, other crops sown in winter, such as barley, are in a crucial development stage, while corn and sunflower production over the summer could also be hit.

Farmers have had to water wheat already, otherwise yields would drop dramatically. “We wouldn’t normally water at this time of the year but the dry periods are coming earlier and earlier,” one farmer in the Loiret told AFP. “If we don’t water today, we’ll lose 50 percent of our output.” 

The war in Ukraine means wheat prices are already at record levels – already at more than €400 a tonne in Europe for delivery in September, up from €260/tonne a year before Russia’s invasion. A strong harvest in France would offset some of the global food chain issues caused by the conflict.

But, because of the lack of rain, two-thirds of France is already experiencing dry to very dry soils – prompting concern of a soil or agricultural drought, in which the water deficit in soil is bad enough to alter the proper development of vegetation. 

Over the past three months, soils have remained very dry for the season in the eastern half of France, Corsica and locally in northern France – a situation that occurs, on average, one year in 10.  

They have been extremely dry over the same period in PACA, Corsica, the Massif Central, parts of Burgundy, the Grand-East and Hauts-de-France, a one-year-in-25 situation.  

That means the prospect is for a smaller than usual wheat harvest. With wheat-producing states in the US such as Kansas and Oklahoma also suffering in drought conditions, a poor harvest in France this year could be particularly significant – and could lead to wheat prices rising even higher.

“We already had markets that were very nervous. This is adding to tensions,” Nathan Cordier, a grain market analysts at agricultural consultancy Agritel, told AFP. “France is one of the major players in the wheat market and people are counting on it. “The question is whether export volumes will be enough.”

“No region has been spared. We can see the earth cracking every day,” Christiane Lambert, of France’s biggest agricultural union FNSEA, told AFP on Monday. “If things carry on like this, farmers who can irrigate their crops will be able to deal with it but the others will face a dramatic reduction in yields.”

France’s current hot spell is expected to last until the middle of next week. Forecasts beyond that time are too unreliable to be taken seriously, but Meteo France has warned that the climate trend for the summer is that it will most likely be drier and hotter than normal.

If rain returns towards the end of the month and into June, experts say it will partially compensate for the water deficit in the year to date, but will not have much effect on the water table or river flows.

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French riviera: Unesco tsunami warning for Marseille and Cannes

Unesco has announced that the Mediterranean - including the French cities of Marseille and Cannes - will be at risk of tsunamis within the next 30 years, and therefore has included it in its tsunami protection program

French riviera: Unesco tsunami warning for Marseille and Cannes

The risk of tsunamis in the Mediterranean Sea is real – on October 16th, 1979, a tsunami, caused by a landslide, hit the coast of Nice and killed a dozen people. More recently, the Greek island of Samos in the Aegean Sea was hit by a tsunami in 2020.

But the climate crisis and rising sea levels mean that experts fear that in the future they will no longer be rare events along the Mediterranean coast.

Unesco has therefore announced that it will be adding thousands of communities to its Tsunami Ready Plan, including the French cities of Marseille and Cannes.

Experts fear that tsunamis in the Mediterranean could reach up to a metre in height and are almost guaranteed in the next 30 years.

According to Unesco’s calculations, “there is a 100% chance” that tsunamies will occur in the Mediterranean “over the next thirty years.” Therefore, the UN organisation has called for public authorities to institute their multistep programme, which would encourage awareness, warning, and prevention mechanisms for at-risk coastal communities. 

The preparedness program seeks to ensure that these cities and towns, like Marseille and Cannes, will have the necessary response mechanisms in place by 2030.

The Tsunami Ready program, which has already been piloted in dozens of communities across the Caribbean, Pacific and Indian Ocean regions and was prepared by Unesco experts, establishes twelve indicators to be respected by the communities concerned. This means that Marseille and Cannes will be expected create plans for identifying tsunamis threats and build community awareness and preparation for how to cope with tsunamis.

The twelve readiness indicators are shown in the graphic below:

Communities must meet all 12 indicators, which cover Assessment, Preparedness, and Response, will be recognized as ‘Tsunami Ready’ by the UNESCO/IOC.

Tsunamis are usually caused by seismic activity (78 percent of them) – like the deadly Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 that killed over 210,000 people, but 10 percent are also caused by volcanic activity and landslides, like the tsunami that hit the Pacific island of Tonga in January. Meanwhile, the rare 2 percent are caused by meteorological activity.

However, the increased concern for tsunamis along France’s Mediterranean coast is in part due to rising sea levels (resulting from the climate crisis) and the need to better monitor underwater volcanos.

Rising sea levels can lead to an increase in the power of tsunamis – up to tenfold. In some parts of the world, such as Macao, scientists estimate that  tsunamis will have twice their current impact by 2050.

Even a tsunami of 50cm high can do a lot of damage – what sounds like a small flow of water is actually capable of lifting a car and depositing it several dozen meters away.