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ENVIRONMENT

Water park closed as France’s spectacular Gorges du Verdon hit by drought

Officials at one of France’s most spectacular summer tourist attractions the Gorges du Verdon are set to ban rafting and swimming as water levels in the canyon run low, wiping out the entire summer season for the first time ever.

Water park closed as France's spectacular Gorges du Verdon hit by drought
The Gorges du Verdon should look like this (Photo: Michel Gangne / AFP)

The Gorges du Verdon – the largest canyon in Europe, and a draw for water sports enthusiasts in the summer – has been hit by drought following a winter with little rain and snow on the Val d’Allos, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. 

And the lack of water has led to a “historic” hydrological situation and prompted local authorities in the area to ban certain water-based activities, and prevent a water park from opening this summer.

The area, which welcomes up to 1 million visitors a year, has closed to rafting and swimming in previous summers, but this year’s shutdown is unusually early – it’s the first time an entire summer season has been wiped out. 

READ ALSO France faces very hot summer with risk of droughts and wildfires

Meanwhile, the water at Lac de Sainte-Croix, one of the largest lakes in France, is already at a late summer levels. Water sports are permitted for now, but questions remain over whether it will be able to remain open throughout July and August.

Electricity supplier EDF has maintained a minimum flow in the Verdon to preserve wildlife, but will not release water into the gorge, in order to ensure the supply of drinking water to towns and cities in the south including Marseille and for agricultural irrigation. It has also stopped hydroelectric production for six months to protect supplies.

“It is necessary that the inhabitants as well as the tourists are aware of this exceptional situation”, insists the prefect of the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, Violaine Démaret. The authorities want, for their part, to promote the beaches that are still accessible to prevent tourists from flocking to the forbidden and dangerous bathing areas.

MAP Where in France has water restrictions in place?

Water levels are less than 40cm in Lac de Castillon, hemmed in between the Alpine mountains some 900m above sea level, down some 5m from normal levels, the mayor of Saint-André-les-Alpes told Le Figaro.

“We’re not even going to make a quarter of our turnover. Tourists are already upset and when there will be many people, what will we be able to offer them?” Ines Flores, who runs water sports base Bike Beach, told the paper. 

“In a few decades, we have gone from one drought every five years to three droughts every five years,” Claude Roustan, president of the département’s fishing federation, added.

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CLIMATE CRISIS

Firefighters contain French blazes but caution reigns

A huge fire that has devastated swathes of southwestern France appeared contained on Friday as French and foreign firefighters worked flat out, but blistering temperatures made victory uncertain, local authorities said.

Firefighters contain French blazes but caution reigns

The 40-kilometre active fire front in the Gironde and Landes departments around Bordeaux “has not developed, but the weather conditions are pushing us towards extreme vigilance”, deputy prefect Ronan Leaustic told reporters.

Temperatures stood at 39C in the fire zone, just like the day before.

No new evacuations had been ordered on top of the 10,000 people already asked to leave, Leaustic added.

But “temperatures continue to rise and the water table keeps falling”, he said.

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.

‘Helping you guys’

Many of the newcomers went into action on Friday.

“It doesn’t matter which country we’re in, we’re firefighters, we are able to help people around the world,” said Cristian Buhaianu, who commands a 77-strong firefighting contingent from Romania.

At the Merignac air base, near the southwestern city of Bordeaux, where Canadair planes and other firefighting aircraft are stationed, a Greek pilot said scenes of devastation like the ones seen in France were commonplace in his home country.

“We see this every year in Greece, and right now we see this in France,” the pilot, 36-year-old Anastasis Sariouglou told AFP. “We have the feeling of helping you guys and it’s nice.”

In the hard-hit area around the village of Hostens, the thick smoke seen on Thursday gave way to blue skies and occasional clouds.

France has been buffeted this summer by a historic drought that has forced water use restrictions nationwide, as well as a series of heatwaves that experts say are being driven by climate change.

The blaze near Bordeaux erupted in July — the driest month seen in France since 1961 — destroying 14,000 hectares and forcing thousands of people to evacuate before it was contained.

But it continued to smoulder in the tinder-dry pine forests and peat-rich soil.

Officials suspect arson may have played a role in the latest flare-up, which has burned 7,400 hectares since Tuesday.

‘Forced to adapt’

Fires in 2022 have ravaged an area three times the annual average over the past 10 years, with blazes also active in the Alpine Jura, Isere and Ardeche regions this week.

The Ardeche fire “is far from under control, because the site is very difficult to reach”, said Jean Jaussaud, a local emergency services commander.

European Copernicus satellite data showed more carbon dioxide greenhouse gas — over one million tonnes — had been released from 2022’s forest fires in France than in any summer since records began in 2003.

On Friday, 19 departments were still at the highest orange heat alert level set by weather authority Meteo-France.

This year’s summer resembled predictions for “an average summer in the middle of this century” under pessimistic climate change scenarios, Meteo-France expert Jean-Michel Soubeyroux told AFP.

Temperatures were “unprecedented”, said wine-grower Maurin Berenger from the southwestern Lot department.

“We’ve been forced to adapt, we work from very early in the morning or even at night. I started at 3:00 am last night, and people with farm hands start at 6:00 to avoid the heat”.

Paris-based pensioner Caroline Dubois, 72, said she was “leaving all the windows in the apartment open so there’s a breeze”.

Weather forecasts suggest France’s third heatwave this year will be broken by storms over the weekend.

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