Famous Canal du Midi stays closed amid water level fears in France

As drought forces the reopening of the Canal du Midi to be postponed, warnings over the low level of France’s water table have brought home the scale of the problems facing the country heading into summer.

Famous Canal du Midi stays closed amid water level fears in France
Boats berthed on the bottom of the Canal du Midi after water was drained for maintenance work in November, 2019. (Photo by ERIC CABANIS / AFP)

The Canal du Midi in south-west France remains closed three weeks later than scheduled after refilling operations following winter maintenance work were slowed down because of drought.

The 240 km canal – a Unesco World Heritage site and a major tourist attraction that was built in the 17th century – connects Toulouse to the Mediterranean. Along with the 193km Canal de Garonne, it forms the Canal des Deux Mers, joining the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. It was due to reopen fully to navigation in February, after parts had been drained for routine maintenance and restoration work over winter.

Daily readings show the water level of the canal are 30 cm below normal levels, which means that it is too low to be safely navigable.

Voies navigables de France (VNF), which operates and maintains the canal, said in a statement that it had decided to postpone complete replenishment until mid-March, meaning it would remain closed to navigation for longer than originally anticipated, to ensure drinking water supplies for hundreds of thousands of people.

READ ALSO Storms, wildfires and drought: How much the climate crisis cost France in 2022

“The priority issue in this context of drought is to ensure the supply of drinking water for the populations,” VNF said last month.

“Voies navigables de France contributes to this by directing 50 percent of the water captured in the Black Mountains to supply the Cammazes reservoir to secure access to drinking water for the 220,000 inhabitants who depend on it. 

“VNF has also decided to postpone the complete replenishment of the Canal du Midi until March 15, 2023, in order to replenish the water reserves of the Lampy and Saint-Ferréol reservoirs as much as possible. This measure should lead to a saving of around 400,000m3 of water.”

READ ALSO MAP: Where in France is under water restrictions in spring 2023?

Water to supply the Canal du Midi comes mainly from the Aude, the Cesse and the Hérault rivers, but also from reservoirs at Lampy, Saint Ferréol and Ganguise. 

“The last few months have been particularly dry in the south-west basin and on the two dam-reservoirs managed by Voies navigables de France in the Black Mountains are at 55 percent compared to 85 percent at the same time in 2022,” VNF said.

The news about the absence of water to replenish one of south-west France’s most important waterways comes as the Bureau de recherches géologiques et minières (BRGM) warned that the water table across almost all of France was at a worryingly low level.

French local authorities are already putting in place water restrictions in order to try and avoid another punishing drought this summer, as the environment minister told the country “we should be alarmed” about the water situation.

READ ALSO France to impose water restrictions to avoid summer drought

And the scale of the problem was highlighted in a BRGM report published on Monday, March 13th, in which it said: “Groundwater levels remain below normal with 80 percent of levels moderately low to very low. The situation has deteriorated due to the lack of effective rainfall in February.”

Following a dry winter – no rain was recorded in France for 32 days – the BRGM described the situation as “degraded and unsatisfactory”. 

The remaining hope is for improved rainfall in March. “Recharge could resume in March in the areas that have been watered and the situation could then improve,” BRGM said. But it warned that insufficient rain would place further strain on low stocks.

READ ALSO ‘By a substantial margin’: How summer 2022 was Europe’s hottest on record

Much further into the year and the water table will stop being replenished as most of any rain that falls will be taken up by vegetation, experts have said.

However, even with significant rainfall, water levels in France may not return to normal levels. “The replenishment of stocks by spring remains difficult to envisage with the reactive aquifers showing very low levels.”

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9 tips to keep your French home cool without using air conditioning

As summer kicks off in France, temperatures are starting to rise - whether you want to avoid air conditioning for environmental reasons or if your place simply isn't equipped with it, here's how to stay cool this summer without AC.

9 tips to keep your French home cool without using air conditioning

Air-conditioning is not a standard feature of French homes – under five percent of French households are equipped with it and having it installed can be complicated (not to mention expensive), especially if you live in an apartment block.

READ ALSO The rules of installing air-conditioning in your French home

And that’s before we get into the environmental impact of air-con – not only does it guzzle energy, but it also contributes to the ‘heat sink’ effect that can make cities up to 10C warmer than the surrounding area. If you have ever walked past the exterior of an air-conditioning unit in the street and felt the hot blast, you will realise why thousands of them make cities even hotter during the summer months. 

As the climate crisis intensifies, heatwaves in France are predicted to become longer and more intense. So here’s a look at how to keep your home cool without using air-conditioning. 

Keep it shady – In France, many homes and apartments have shutters. If you are from the US or UK you might not have grown up with shutters, but you will be surprised what a difference they can make, both in keeping your home cool during the summer and warm in the winter – during the summer the ideal technique is to keep the shutters closed during the day to protect your rooms from direct sunlight, then open them up at night and the early morning to let the cooler air in. 

If your home doesn’t have shutters and installing them is not an option (if you own your own home, shutters are widely available and reasonably priced from DIY stores) you might consider window insulation film. This will help both in the winter and the summer, but during the hot seasons, it will prevent heat from penetrating.

Anti-heat blinds are another option, and they are sold at many French hardware shops, like Leroy-Merlin. 

Neutralise heat ‘bridges’ – Did you know about the concept of a ‘heat bridge’? If you have a balcony or patio area that is covered in heat-sucking concrete, and you have a glass door or window directly next to it, then this will be funnelling heat into your home.

In order to keep the inside of your home cool, think about maintaining a fresh, shady space just outside of your house or apartment. Consider wooden panelling or fake grass (for balconies) instead of concrete, and create your own shade.

For balconies, you might consider a demi-parasol (half-umbrella), or an awning, or place a bamboo screening across the railing to block some of the sunlight. Plants also play a large role, and they can help keep the area around your windows cool as well. The greener your outdoor space, the better. Consider leafy plants that block sunlight in the summer, but lose their foliage in the winter (and thus give you more sun during the cold seasons) as an option to put nearby to your windows.

Air out your space – Do not keep your windows open all day long. Instead, try to create air flow with them, and do so during hours of the day when the air outside is cooler than the air inside.

The early hours of the morning (or late at night) is the best time to do this. 

Fans – Most people will have an electric fan (and if you don’t you might want to buy one now rather than waiting for the first heatwave when all the shops will instantly sell out), but how you use it is also important. 

For example, if you have more than one, you can place one fan on the ground to push cooler air around the space, while pointing another in the direction of an open window to shuffle the warm air out. 

Ultimately, the trick is creating currents so that cool air comes inside and warm air goes out. If you live in a multi-story home, remember that heat rises, so try to make it so fans blow hot air out upstairs and take cool air in downstairs.

If you have a ceiling fan, try setting it up so that it rotates counterclockwise, rather than clockwise, in the summer. This helps to push air down and to create a downdraft.

READ MORE: How can I protect my pet during a French heatwave?

Switch out your lightbulbs – This is an easy fix, but it can make a big difference. Incandescent light bulbs are prone to heating up quite a lot, which you probably already know if you have ever accidentally touched one.

Switching these out with CFL or LED bulbs can help save energy, and they emit significantly less heat. 

Avoid devices that generate heat – During July and August in France, you might want to stock up on the materials to cook up a delicious salade niçoise instead of a hearty gratin. Avoiding the oven can help keep your home cool, but there are other smaller electronics that also heat up when plugged in, like game consoles.

Keep these unplugged when you are not using them.

Walk around on bare floors – In the winter, your cosy carpet or rug helps to insulate the space and keep you nice and warm, but in the summer, carpeted rooms can start to feel warmer than certain bare floors.

If you have floors made of ceramic and porcelain tile, stone, or hard wood, consider keeping them bare to help stay cool. 

Handmade air con – One trick is to fill a bowl or saladier with ice cubes, then place it in front of a fan to enjoy a chilly breeze. Remember to refill the bowl once the ice melts, though. 

READ MORE: ‘Don’t sleep naked’ – How to get a good night’s sleep in a French heatwave

Buy a dehumidifier – While dehumidifiers cannot lower the temperature in the room, they can help make you feel a bit cooler by lowering the overall humidity. Another trick to keep your space less humid is to use bathroom and stove fans when appropriate.

Leave home – if your place starts to feel unbearably hot and stuffy, there are plenty of places that you can head to that are cooler. City authorities publish ‘cool maps’ during heatwaves that list all of the cool public spaces – from ancient churches to air-conditioned supermarkets and cinemas and the public ‘cool rooms’ that local authorities maintain for vulnerable people.