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CLIMATE CRISIS

How France is struggling with drought and a punishing summer of heat

From farmers to fishermen, boat owners to ordinary households, communities across France are struggling with a severe drought that has seen an unprecedented number of regions affected by water restrictions this summer.

How France is struggling with drought and a punishing summer of heat
Boats in the dry bed of Brenets Lake, part of the Doubs River, a natural border between eastern France and western Switzerland. The river has dried up. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

Like much of western Europe, the country is going through a punishing hot season of record temperatures and forest fires that have led to renewed focus on climate change.

After the third-driest spring on record and drought-like conditions since, rivers and reservoirs are running low nationwide, leading to increasingly severe water restrictions.

“We have a record number of departments with restrictions,” the environment ministry said in a statement, saying that 90 of the 96 administrative regions known as departments were affected.

The most severe water-saving measures — including a ban on irrigation for farmland — are in place in the northwest in the Loire river basin, as well as the southeast around the Rhone.

Areas in the southwest around the Tarn and Lot rivers are also in the highest red category used by the government’s drought website Propluvia.

Since the start of the year, 151 days out of 204 have had an average temperature above the long-term average, a record since 1947, according to the national weather service Meteo France.

Consequences

From the normally verdant Alps to the most famous wine-growing areas in Bourgogne and Bordeaux, the consequences of months of almost rain-free weather are being felt.

In the Franche-Comte area in eastern France, water shortages have become so severe that several villages in the Doubs area are now dependent on water trucks delivering supplies.

The problem is felt acutely by the local dairy farmers whose cows need more than 100 litres of water a day.

“The price of water has double or even tripled compared to a few years ago,” local farmer Aurelie Binet told France 3 television.

“As farmers, whatever happens, we use large amounts of water.”

The picturesque southern village of Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer near the mouth of the Rhone on the Mediterranean coast is also struggling to draw drinking water from its usual sources.

“It hasn’t rained for eight months and as the Rhone is very low, salt water is flowing up to 20 kilometres (12 miles) inland,” mayor Christelle Aillet told AFP. “We’ve got a problem with the water and of volumes.”

On the Rhine river, commercial canal boats are having to run at a third of their carrying capacity in order to avoid hitting the bottom because the water level is so low.

Even in the far north in the Calais region, which is reliably cooler and wetter than most parts of France, farmers are worried about parched grasslands that are not providing for their animals.

“Some colleagues are saying it’s worse than in 1976 (a record drought year),” Jean-Pierre Clipet from the FDSEA farmers’ union told AFP. “They don’t know how their going to feed their animals this winter.”

Fishing off limits

In red-zone drought areas with the most severe water restrictions, washing cars and watering gardens is prohibited, while golf courses are also unable to keep their fairways green.

Low river levels also mean fishing is restricted, while rescue operations are being carried out for species stranded in some waterways, including around Belfort in eastern France.

Eric Vincent, a fishing guide who takes clients in the Alsace region and the Vosges in the east, told AFP he had had to cancel clients last week.

“The fisherman knows about the condition of the river and knows when to stop,” said the 55-year-old. “I’m not going to be able to accompany clients this summer. It wasn’t like this 10-15 years ago.”

In the famed vineyards of Bourgogne meanwhile, wine makers expect this year’s harvest to be small and early, perhaps beating the 2020 record when grape pickers began their work in August. 

Forest fires

France has endured two severe heatwaves in May and latterly in July — when temperatures soared above 40C.

Two huge blazes near Bordeaux in southwest France over the last fortnight have destroyed more than 20,000 hectares of tinder-dry forest and required around 2,000 firefighters to bring them under control.

Local authorities are restricting access to many wooded areas as a precaution, including the Calanques National Park along the Mediterranean coast near Marseille which is popular with tourists.

Experts say more severe hot periods and water shortages will become more common as global warming linked to greenhouse gas emissions takes a toll on the planet.

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WEATHER

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.”

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