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ENVIRONMENT

‘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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WILDFIRES

More evacuated as forest fire reignites in southern France

A forest fire in France's southern Aveyron region has reignited, sparking the evacuation of 1,000 more people and burning a total of 1,260 hectares, local authorities said Sunday.

More evacuated as forest fire reignites in southern France

France has been buffeted this summer by a historic drought as well as a series of heatwaves and several forest fires, notably in the southwest.

READ ALSO: IN PICTURES: French drought intensifies as River Loire dries up

The Aveyron fire, which has been raging since Monday, appeared to be under control and dying out on Saturday afternoon when it suddenly reignited in a “virulent” manner, gobbling up 500 more hectares (1,235 acres), the prefecture said.

At least 1,000 people were evacuated from the village of Mostuejols near the city of Millau and six nearby hamlets, it said.

Some 3,000 people had been evacuated because of the fire, but were allowed back when it appeared under control. No casualties have been reported so far from the blaze.

A local man was under investigation for accidentally starting the fire when a metal part of his trailer touched the road, sending off sparks that ignited the dried vegetation.

In eastern France, police said on Saturday they were banning entry to most forests in the Bas-Rhin region near the German border, in order to limit the risk of fires igniting.

Austrian firefighters help to extinguish a fire in a forest of South Gironde

Austrian firefighters help to extinguish a fire in a forest in South Gironde, near Belin-Beliet on August 13, 2022. (Photo by Thibaud MORITZ / AFP)

In the southwestern Gironde region around Bordeaux, another fire which flared on Tuesday was under control after rain fell overnight, a senior official said.

READ ALSO: Thunderstorms expected around contained French wildfire

The situation “considerably improved during the night,” Arnaud Mendousse, of Gironde fire and rescue, said.

He said there had been between 10 and 30 mm of rain in the region but on “terrain that is extremely dry”.

“We know that this offers a respite but does not signify an end to the fight. We know that if it does not rain in the next 48 to 72 hours, the risk will increase considerably.”

Mendousse said the humidity level has gone up and the temperature was relatively low at around 25 degrees Celsius, (77 Fahrenheit) adding: “The fire is not completely out and the soil remains extremely hot”.

EU members including Germany, Poland, Austria and Romania have pledged reinforcements totalling 361 firefighters to join the roughly 1,100 French ones on the ground, along with several water-bombing planes from the European Union fleet.

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