Water restrictions imposed in France as country battles drought

Almost all of France is now on drought alert, with restrictions on water usage as the country battles an exceptionally dry summer.

Water restrictions imposed in France as country battles drought
The bed of the Doubs river in eastern France, which has dried up (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

After record breaking heatwaves and forest fires across the country, most of France is now on drought alert.

Drought is impacting almost the entirety of the country from east to west. Of the 96 French mainland départements, 86 are currently on some level of drought alert, meaning there are restrictions on water usage in place. 

There are four levels of alert, beginning with least to most severe: vigilance, alert (yellow), heightened alert (orange), and crisis (red). 

Currently 28 départements are listed as in ‘crisis’ – the highest level of alert, with the regions of Centre-Val de Loire and Pays de la Loire appearing to be most severely impacted, as shown in the map below.

Screenshot of map showing water restriction orders as of July 25, 2022. (PROPLUVIA)

Even Brittany, a region that is not typically known for drought or hot temperatures, is seeing much of the region under at least the  ‘alert’ or ‘heightened alert’ designation.

The east of the country is also heavily impacted, particularly mountainous areas in Isère. 

A considerable part of France is on alert and heightened alert status, meaning water use is carefully controlled. Départements with yellow (alert) status must reduce water usage for agricultural purposes by up to 50 percent (or simply prohibit withdrawals up to three days per week).

‘Yellow’ level water restrictions do not only impact farmers – washing your car or watering your garden during the hottest hours of the day is forbidden under this alert, with some water activities also being restricted. 

For those in orange départements, there are stronger limitations for watering gardens, green spaces, golf courses, and washing cars. In this scenario, farmers must reduce water usage for agricultural purposes by at least 50 percent or more. 

At crisis (red) level, all non-priority water withdrawals are halted – only water usage for health and hydration purposes are authorised. 

Drought impacts everything from agriculture to tourism to even electricity production and the ability to cool nuclear reactors that power France.

Thus far, towns have seen their taps run dry and farmers worry about their animals, as creeks that once hydrated their livestock shrivel up. Tourists are also seeing the impacts of drought, particularly those in Charente-Maritime which has has banned outdoor beach showers to conserve water.

For farmers, there is also serious concern about this year’s harvest. “The vines have started to wither, the grapes are no longer growing and the vines are completely blocked. If it doesn’t rain, we’re going to lose a lot of harvest,” explained winegrower the winegrower Cédric Chiapello to RTL. “With the heat wave and the drought falling at the same time, I think that this will also delay the harvest.”

In order to cope with drought this summer in France, water agencies could spend up to an additional €100 million to help agricultural sectors adapt.

Experts once again blame the climate crisis. “The drought this year is clearly remarkable,” said Florence Habets, hydroclimatologist and director of research at the CNRS to French daily Le Parisien. Soil moisture is at its lowest level in 60 years.

The maps below show continued risk of drought across France from this point onward until the end of the summer, indicating much of the country will likely continue to be impacted. 

There are some points of particular concern, such as the Serre-Ponçon lake, which is the largest water reservoir in the country. It is located at the crossroads of the Hautes-Alpes and Alpes-de-Haute-Provence départements, and its water levels have not been this low since its construction was completed in 1961. Currently, it is at six metres below optimal level.

Meanwhile, the National Federation of Fishing in France has launched a campaign to warn about the dangerous and continuous decline in river levels, which it believes is responsible for the disappearance of many species. “There has never been so much dryness in the rivers,” said Loïc Obled, the deputy director general of the French Office of Biodiversity to Le Parisien.

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Reader question: Why are the leaves falling in summer and does that mean my garden is dead?

It might look like fall outside in certain parts of France, but it certainly feels like summer. So why are the leaves falling from the trees? And what does that mean for your garden?

Reader question: Why are the leaves falling in summer and does that mean my garden is dead?

Reader question: It’s only the middle of August and already the leaves have fallen from most of the trees – my lawn is covered with dead leaves like it’s the middle of autumn. Why is this happening and does it mean the trees are dead?

France is having a hot, dry summer and humans and animals are not the only ones suffering amid the heat. Plants and trees are looking pretty sickly in many areas and you may have noticed an unexpected sprinkling of dead leaves on the ground – one that you might normally expect for the fall months. 

The short answer is that the trees are thirsty too. As a result of a lack of water, trees can lose their foliage, but if you’re a gardener you don’t have to worry too much: this is a self-protection mechanism. 

While seeing leaves falling in early August might be surprising to you, it actually is a natural reaction from trees that are just trying to protect themselves from high temperatures. 

Nathalie Breda, the director for research at the National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment (INRAE),  said trees are a lot like humans when it comes to heat: they sweat when it is hot.

“Transpiring is an active part of temperature regulation,” said Nathalie Bréda to French radio service FranceInter. “This is the first step the tree takes when the temperature is high – it pumps water through its roots, which eventually turns into water vapour once it reaches the foliage, later being released into the atmosphere.

“The tree will pump water through its roots, which will turn into vapour once it reaches the foliage, and which will be released into the atmosphere.”

This helps to keep the tree at a lower temperature than the air. The tree does this by ‘opening its stomata’ (similar to pores) – which allows the plant to release water. 

However, once temperatures get even higher, and there is less water for trees to draw upon, then they ‘sweat’ less. 

“Once the tree feels that there is less water in the soil, it limits the opening of the stomata to conserve water and preserve itself,” said Bréda. 

This means that the tree gives up on its foliage to help conserve water, causing the leaves dry out and fall to the ground. 

Do gardeners have to be worried?

While conserving water in this way can weaken the tree in the long term, it does not mean that the tree dropping leaves in your garden is dead. Most trees should recover, even if it takes several years after a drought to do so (as it did, for instance, with the years 1976 and 2003).

Trees shed their leaves in the fall when they sense cold, unsuitable weather is coming. It is the same principle where they seek to conserve water and energy. 

That being said, when the tree loses leaves prematurely, this means it has finished growing prematurely for that season. Practically, trees need to open their stomata in order to photosynthesise, as this is the part of the tree that allows the entry of carbon dioxide. Failing to do this can put the tree at risk, as the plant needs to photosynthesise to remain healthy and protect itself against insect attacks and frost waves. 

Bréda explained to FranceInter that “after the 2018 heat wave, all the spruce trees in Eastern France were killed by bark beetle insects. This happened because they were weakened.”

It also takes plants one or two seasons to be able to recover and build back up their reserves. Experts worry that with recurrent climatic distress, the plants will not “have the time to recover from one year to the next.”

A sign that the tree is suffering amid severe drought might be ‘weight loss,’ Bréda explained to FranceBleu. “When drought becomes very severe, we even see that trees lose weight. Meaning, they use the water in their elastic tissue to compensate for the lack of water in the soil.”

What can I do to protect my trees?

For gardeners or home owners looking to protect their trees, another idea is to trim the branches back – this would allow them to reduce their foliage and better conserve their water. The quick answer would typically be to simply water the tree, but with most of France on some level of drought alert – water restrictions are in place almost everywhere across l’Hexagon. 

READ MORE: MAP: Where in France are there water restrictions and what do they mean?

For urban areas, Bréda recommends that cities reconsider the way of planting vegetation in the city: it is necessary to “review the size of the tree planting hole, and move the road (asphalt) away from its roots a little. This would allow the soil around it to better rehydrate when it rains.”