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

More than one hundred French villages have already seen their taps run dry as France grapples with one of its driest summers on record. Some local authorities have already imposed water rationing, but could this be applied nationwide?

ANALYSIS: Is water likely to be rationed as France's drought worsens?

Having just come out of the driest July in over 60 years, the whole of France remains on some level of drought alert, and strict water restrictions are in place in many areas.

In most places the restrictions concern things like watering the garden, but some areas have already begun to ration tap water.

“Over a hundred communes in France have no more drinking water,” announced Environment Minister Christophe Béchu on Friday.

Current restrictions

France operates a four-level alert system with the strictest water restrictions for those in the red zone.

You can find a full breakdown of what the water restrictions mean HERE.

None of the four levels ration drinking water, but local authorities are empowered to impose extra restrictions – including rationing or turning off household supplies – if the situation requires it. 

Around 100 local authorities have already done this and more have warned that they may be forced to in the days to come – authorities in the northern part of Corsica warned last week that “the water will run out in 25 days” if current consumption levels continue.

Where is household water rationing most likely to happen?

“It depends where people live and on the depth and fullness of the aquifer (water tables) in the area,” explained Emma Haziza, hydrologist and a specialist in flood resilience strategies. According to Haziza, household water rationing could happen across France, as it is not necessarily dependent on region. This means that parts of the North – or parts of Brittany, an area many would not associate with drought – could be at risk as well.

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

Currently, there are 93 départements which are subject to water restrictions in France, with 62 listed at the ‘crise‘ level of alert – the highest level.

You can see a map of the départements at crise (red) level HERE. Haziza recommends using the government website “Propluvia” to keep up to date on ground water restrictions and levels across the country. 

Areas like Northern Corsica and the Occitanie region in the south west are of particular concern for the coming weeks.

Local authorities in Haute-Corse have warned that water could run out in the next 25 days if measures are not taken to limit consumption. For Occitanie, temperatures will once again rise this week.

Additionally, the towns that have already seen their taps run dry are primarily located in the south and south east, in the Alpes de Haute-Provence and Var départements. Villages like Le Fugeret, Le Castellet and Annot are all seeing their drinking water supplied by trucks. 

For villages going without tap water, this is primarily a result of water tables being too low – in some cases that causes the drinking water produced to be unsafe with sand and sediment getting into the pipes. 

Over two thirds of France relies on ground water to supply their drinking water, which is, in many areas, drying up.

Some regions might be less predisposed to water shortages – for example Mayenne only uses groundwater for 40 percent of its drinking supply and relies more heavily on a large dam on the Mayenne river which allows a higher water retention. However, even if a town does not rely as heavily on underground water,  the availability of above-ground water is also shrinking across the country. 

Minister of Ecological Transition Christophe Béchu said that this explains the more dire situation in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, adding that “those who depend on the Verdon are not in the same situation as those who depend on the Asse.”

How much could be limited?

This is in the hands of local authorities who have the power to impose strict restrictions if the local situation requires it.

Villages – like Bagnols-en-Forêt in the Var département – that have begun restricting household consumption have told residents to only use up to 200 litres of water per person per day.

Other villages, however, have limited consumption to 150 litres per day. 

Is this manageable?

The average person in France consumes approximately 149 litres of drinking water per day, so these measures should not be too restrictive. Most (39 percent) of individual daily water usage is taken up by showering.

The town hall for Bagnols-en-Forêt published a short explainer on Facebook to help people better envision how much water is consumed (on average) during different day-to-day activities:

“Watering [your garden] with a hose can consume up to 1,000 litres per hour, a bath can take up between 120 and 200 litres of water, in comparison to a shower which takes up 40 to 80 litres. A washing machine cycle can also take up about 40 to 80 litres, and a toilet flush can consume between three to nine litres.”

In total, households account for about 24 percent of water usage in France.

What happens if you don’t respect the rules?

Failing to respect water restriction rules can lead to a fine. This is enforced by the French Office of Biodiversity (OFB), who is in charge of monitoring compliance with the restrictions. As an individual, you could have to pay €1,500 – or even €3,000 if you are a repeat offender. Companies, associations or governmental bodies could see fines up to €7,500 for failure to comply. 

If your local authority imposes a ration of, say 200 litres per person, you risk paying a higher rate for any water you use above this amount.

What else is the government doing to respond to the drought?

In response to the severity of the drought, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has announced the creation of an “interministerial crisis unit” whose role will be to “ensure regular feedback from the local authorities of the departments in the most affected areas; anticipate the possible activation of the ORSEC “water” plans for the concerned areas; to coordinate the necessary civil security measures.”

The task force will also monitor the impact of this drought on energy production and transport infrastructures and on the agricultural sector.

Additionally, the Prime Minister has asked local authorities in areas with severe droughts to meet with their local water authorities to discuss how to best prioritise water usage.

How long will the drought continue?

The drought itself is expected to continue on into autumn, which is when the country will hopefully be able to observe ‘effective rainfall’ which will allow the groundwater levels to rise again, according to Jérôme Nicolas, hydrogeologist at the Bureau de recherches géologiques et minières (BRGM).

This means that with high August temperatures and current weather conditions, there will not likely be any respite from the drought in the short-term.

Jean-Michel Soubeyroux of Météo France told FranceInfo that while in the coming weeks, summer rains might limit the emptying of water tables across the country, but we should not “expect a significant amount of precipitation across France to change the drought situation.”

Soubeyroux added that he anticipates the country needing “a month of excess precipitation before we can get back to a normal situation, and we do not have any forecasts pointing in that direction.” 

Unfortunately even the periodic thunderstorms will likely do little to raise the levels of the water tables – as water from flash rainstorms typically runs off dry ground and is unable to sink down deep enough. Thunderstorms might help a bit though – specifically with watering the vegetation. 

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Paris officials to run emergency exercise simulating a 50C day in the city

As the climate crisis pushes temperatures ever higher, officials in Paris are preparing a simulation of the day when the mercury tops 50C, in order to prepare the city's emergency response.

Paris officials to run emergency exercise simulating a 50C day in the city

This simulation, which was announced on Wednesday, is set to take place in October 2023, and it would plunge two parts of one arrondissement (which has not yet been decided) into the fictitious scenario to test the city’s capacity to respond to such a crisis. 

The current temperature record in Paris is 42.6C, which was set during the heatwave of 2019, but experts predict that the record is unlikely to remain unbroken for much longer.  

According to Deputy Mayor of Paris, Penelope Komitès, the city wants to be able to anticipate the next disaster.

“[Paris] has withstood various crises in recent years,” she said to French daily Le Parisien. The public official referenced past disasters, such as the flood of the Seine in 2018, Notre-Dame catching on fire, along with widespread protests and social movements.

“What will be the next crisis?” she said.

Public authorities hope to expand upon and move beyond the city’s first “action plan,” which was adopted in 2017.

The heatwave simulation would allow the city to test its emergency response capacity, namely deployment of cool rooms, shaded areas and other measures. It would also allow public officials to gauge and predict the reactions of Parisians amid a disastrous heatwave of 50C. 

READ MORE: ‘Over 40C’: What will summers in Paris be like in future?

“We have survived crises, but they can happen again,” Komitès said to Le Parisien. Her goal is not for the simulation to provoke anxiety, but instead to prepare the city to mobilise in such an event. 

According to RTL, on Wednesday, the greater Paris region also presented its plan to adapt the community “to the effects of climate change”.

Valérie Pécresse, the regional representative, referenced plans for “1,000 fountains” and the creation of “a network of climate shelters.”

Additionally, the region has set a target of increasing its green space by 5,000 hectares by 2030. The targets of this plan would include priority urban spaces: schoolyards, parking lots, squares, as well as cemeteries.

In 2003, the country suffered a historic heatwave that resulted in at least 14,000 heat-related deaths. Since then, France and its cities have begun adapting to rising temperatures by working to increase green space, provide ‘heat

An analysis from the BBC in 2021 found that “the number of extremely hot days every year when the temperature reaches 50C has doubled since the 1980s.”

READ MORE: Trees to trams: How French cities are adapting to summer heatwaves

This will not be the first simulation activity to anticipate or help the public become aware of rising temperatures. 

In 2014, meteorologist Evelyne Dhéliat gave a ‘fake forecast’ pretending that the year was 2050. The temperatures on her map however, ended up being eerily close to those France has seen regularly since 2019.