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HEATWAVE LATEST: 37 parts of France on alert, school closures

37 départements in France are under red or orange alert level for the heatwave, with at least 18 million people impacted. Students in elementary and middle schools in the 12 départements at red alert will be able to stay home on Friday, June 17th.

HEATWAVE LATEST: 37 parts of France on alert, school closures
Photo by LOIC VENANCE / AFP

As of Friday, June 17th, 37 départements in France are at red or orange alert level for the heatwave, with at least 18 million people impacted. This is the earliest heat wave ever recorded in France. 

The Ministry of Education has also announced that primary and middle schools (collèges) in the 12 départements that are at the ‘red’ level will be able to stay home Friday, June 17th.

France’s southwest regions are expected to exceed 40°C this Friday and the temperatures will continue to climb into Saturday, according to Météo-France. In Gironde, the département which contains Bordeaux and is on red alert, local authorities have banned “all public demonstrations outdoors or in non-air-conditioned premises” from Friday 2:00 pm due to high temperatures.

The red ‘vigilance absolue‘ level is rarely declared for high temperatures, and is a warning that the heat can pose a serious risk to human health and life. 

The départements on red alert are; Tarn, Haute-Garonne, Gers, Tarn-et-Garonne, Lot-et-Garonne, Landes, Gironde, Charente, Charente-Maritime, Deux-Sèvres, Vienne and Vendée. The alert remains in place until 4pm on Friday.

People in those areas are advised to stay indoors, drink plenty of water and avoid taking exercise in the hottest part of the day. Businesses may also reschedule their day to ensure that workers are able to avoid the worst of the heat and schools may close.

Prime minister Elisabeth Borne tweeted warning people in France to “be careful – drink plenty of water, rest in the shade and take care of loved ones. In case of illness, contact the ambulance on 15.”

Those on orange alert are; Aude, Ardèche, Ariège, Aveyron, Cantal, Cher, Creuse, Corrèze, Dordogne, Drôme, Indre, Indre-et-Loire, Île-et-Vilaine, Loire-et-Cher, Loire-Atlantique, Lot, Maine-et-Loire, Mayenne, Morbihan, Puy-de-Drôme, Pyrénées-Atlantiques, Sarthe, Hautes-Pyrénées, Haute-Loire and Haut-Vienne.

Meanwhile firefighters are warning that the hot temperatures combined with the drought means that much of the south of France is a ‘powder keg’ with wildfire expected.

MAP Where in France are there water restrictions and what does it mean?

The heatwave hit southern France at the start of the week – with temperatures of 36C and 37C recorded in Nimes, Carcassonne and Montelimar, breaking seasonal records – and on Wednesday it is making its way north, bringing unusually high temperatures right across the country.

The official threshold for a heatwave – three or more days where the national thermal indicator exceeds 25.3C and there is a danger to the population of excess mortality – has been reached and local authorities across France are activating their heatwave plans.

Frédéric Nathan of Méteo France said the heatwave was “extremely early”, but due to climate change France is likely to see more early, intense and long heatwaves in the years to come.

On Friday the mercury will continue to rise, with temperatures of 35C-40C expected across the whole of southern France.

Méteo France predicts that for the south “40C in the shade will certainly be reached, especially on Friday.”

Temperatures will also rise in the north, with 32C-36C widely expected, and the heat is predicted to extend to Brittany, which frequently escapes heatwaves.

Temperatures are predicted to reach their peak on Saturday, especially in the north where Paris is forecast to reach 36C.

Through the heatwave night-time temperatures are expected to stay high, not falling below 20C in any part of the country.

Saturday is predicted to be the last day of the very high temperatures, with storms forecast to arrive on Saturday evening from the west, travelling eastwards across the country.

Once the storms are over, temperatures are expected to fall back to the usual seasonal averages of around 30C.

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CLIMATE CRISIS

How France plans to minimise future droughts

The 2022 drought is already the worst in 60 years, but these exceptional events are predicted to become more common, so France is considering long-term solutions to deal with punishingly dry periods.

How France plans to minimise future droughts

Recent headlines in drought-ridden France have made for sobering news: “More than 100 French villages without tap water in ‘unprecedented’ drought”; “‘Water will run out in 25 days’ – Corsica imposes strict new drought restrictions”; “French drought intensifies as River Loire dries up”.

The list goes on.

Environment Minister Christophe Béchu said France has experienced its driest month of July “since 1959”, while Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne activated an interministerial crisis unit to coordinate the resources of the State in the face of the “exceptional drought”.

READ ALSO Ask the expert: Why is France’s drought so bad and what will happen next?

The lack of water is affecting agriculture, food production, France’s famous wine industry, and is stoking tensions between residents and visitors in popular tourist areas.

A senior researcher at the European Drought Observatory told AP on Friday that the current drought affecting large parts of Europe could be worse than the previous one in 2018 – which was so bad that there had been no similar events in the previous 500 years.

And latest weather predictions suggest that drought conditions will continue for up to three months and the ongoing climate crisis means that ‘exceptional’ events such as the 2022 are set to become more regular.

While water restrictions have already been imposed on local authorities to combat the risk of water shortages, are there any long-term plans for protecting France’s water resources?

Companies are looking at ways of concentrating their water use, including by reusing water multiple times where possible, while measures such as trickle irrigation could help reduce water loss in agriculture.

Agroecology, which has been developed over the last few years, is also leading adapted practices on better soil conservation, which could allow water to be better retained.

“We need to accelerate the implementation of these innovative techniques and work on training personnel in the field,” hydrogeologist Marie Pettenati told Franceinfo.

Drinking wastewater

It’s possible. For the past 50 years or so, Namibia has produced a percentage of its drinking water by treating waste water. But it’s not necessarily the first step.

READ ALSO ANALYSIS: Is water likely to be rationed as France’s drought worsens?

A group of farmers in Clermont-Ferrand use water that has passed through the city’s wastewater treatment plant for several years. But schemes like this are highly local and very rare – only a handful exist across the country.

A decree has existed in France allowing the use of treated wastewater for agricultural purposes since 2010, but – with the Clermont-Ferrand exception – is rarely used. The rules and the tools exist. All that remains is to use them.

Groundwater

In total, 62 percent of France’s drinking water is taken from groundwater, according to a Bureau de Recherches Géologiques et Minières study. 

Pettenati said: “We also need to think more deeply about water storage in the ground, which would make it possible to retain resources and make them available for future use. 

“This would mean storing very large volumes of water at times when it is most available (in winter, for example, during periods of heavy rainfall) to be reused later, when it is most needed.”

Treated wastewater could also be stored underground for agricultural use, according to some suggestions.

“Groundwater is an invisible resource. We have trouble understanding how to preserve it, but it is essential,” Pettenati said.

Water reservoirs – often used by farmers – lead to significant losses to evaporation during periods of high temperatures, and risk contamination. 

Moreover, the basins hold a large volume of water in a very localised area, which can have consequences on river levels and impact on wildfire in wetland areas.

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