10 French départments on alert for drought as early heatwave forecast

This week's uncommonly early heatwave has placed 10 French départements on alert for drought.

10 French départments on alert for drought as early heatwave forecast
Drought ground in Bastelicaccia, Corsica in August 2021. (Photo by Pascal POCHARD-CASABIANCA / AFP)

With temperatures reaching up to 30C in some parts of France this week, experts warn that the heatwave, remarkably early for the summer season, could bring on drought.

As a result, water restrictions have been put into place for 10 French départements, with a 15 total under close observation.

Drought alerts and water restrictions are common in France over the summer, but this is unusually early.

The 10 départments who have risen above the threshold for ‘alert’ are Maine-et-Loire, Vienne, Deux-Sèvres, Charente-Maritime, Charente, Ain, Drôme, Alpes-Maritimes, Bouches-du-Rhône and Vaucluse.

A map provided by the Environment Ministry showing zones impacted by water restrictions.

The map by Propluvia shows départements based on grey, yellow, orange, and red. Grey zones (“vigilance”) are to be monitored, whereas yellow zones have risen to the threshold of requiring water restrictions.

These might include specified times for watering the garden or washing the car. Golf courses and public green spaces such as parks will also have restrictions on water usage, and farmers will have water restrictions in place up to three days a week.

If an area is shaded orange, that means it is considered a “reinforced alert zones.” This would mean cutting water usage by at least 50 percent for agricultural purposes (the equivalent of about 3.5 days a week), and implementing stronger limitations on citizens’ water usage for gardens, green spaces, golf courses, or car washing.

Red zones have reached the point of “crisis,” meaning a full stop to non-priority water usage. If a zone also has stripes, that means there is a specific alert regarding groundwater.

READ MORE: MAP: Where in France has water restrictions in place

After an already dry year, the fourth driest in France since 1959, experts worry the heat will accentuate already dry soil, which is cause for concern for French farmers.

Ten days of summer heat, at this time of year “is quite rare” said climate specialist Paul Marquis to French daily Le Parisien.  In fact, some regions will experience between temperatures of eight to 10C higher than average seasonal temperatures. In total, thus far in 2022 in France, it has rained 35 percent less than last year.

However, this early heat wave is not specific to France. Many other parts of the world are experiencing similar weather patterns, with at least 20 million people in East Africa at risk of famine.

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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.