France’s unprecedented drought suggests climate change is ‘spinning out of control’

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As global warming accelerates, the specter of drought haunts once-green French farmlands. Even now, before the start of summer, 15 administrative departments must limit water use while farmers warn that the current situation will adversely affect crop yields.

Few people in France speak of this looming catastrophe – but all the signs of a record drought are there.

“No area is spared. We can see the earth cracking every day. Yesterday I was at a farmhouse in the Puy-de-Dôme . region [in central France]; he was watering the wheat. If things like this continue, farmers who can irrigate their crops will be able to cope but others will face dramatic reductions in their yields,” Christiane Lambert, head of France’s largest agricultural union FNSEA, told AFP on Monday. .

Since last fall we have seen “great droughts” in Spain and Portugal and the same phenomenon has spread to southern France, Lambert said. But “what is unusual this season is the drought affecting the northern region of the Loire”, the river that divides southern and northern France.

‘Water table could not be filled’

The French Ministry of Agriculture is well aware of the crisis. “Winter crops such as wheat and barley, are now growing [before cultivation later on], began to experience conditions that would affect the results,” said a spokesperson. The hot, dry weather that France has experienced over the past few weeks could also affect spring crops such as corn, sunflowers and beets – as well as the fodder needed to feed livestock.

Drought will not only damage food supplies but also have far-reaching implications. “Besides agriculture, drought has a huge impact on many other things – like buildings,” warns hydrologist Emma Haziza. “We are seeing more and more houses collapsing. This has never happened before in France. Drought damage is more expensive to treat than [the consequences of] flooding and that will have huge long-term economic consequences.”

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French energy flows could also be affected. “What’s more, drought has a negative impact on energy production, because nuclear power plants require a lot of water to cool reactors.”

A rise in temperatures this April – even after the first day of the month saw snowfall in France – led to a 25 percent drop in rainfall from the normal pattern. This heatwave is “remarkable in terms of how early it is, how long it lasts and how broad it is geographically”, the French Meteorological Office said.

Combined with unusually low rainfall last winter, these conditions have resulted in the current drought: A rain deficit for two consecutive seasons means the “water table cannot be filled”, Haziza said.

“So quickly we ended up in a critical situation – before the summer even started.”

To Haziza, who studies how water is distributed and circulated across the planet, the reason for the current scarcity is clear.

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“The lack of rain is directly caused by climate change; there is no doubt about that,” he said. “The drought is one of the first consequences we can see. As it happens, this phenomenon is accelerating and becoming more widespread every year.”

Indeed, it is the first time France has experienced what meteorologists call a “lightning drought” – a phenomenon typically experienced by hotter and arid countries, with soil and crops drying up in just five days.

‘Spins out of control’

The drought has hit some areas particularly badly – ​​particularly in southeastern France, in the east of the country, and the Poitou-Charentes region in the west. “The water table in some areas fills up easily while others don’t,” said Haziza. “But now, even areas that thought they wouldn’t experience a drought, like northern France – not to mention much of northern Europe, including Belgium – are starting to suffer the effects.”

By imposing a restriction on those 15 people department, the French government is managing the crisis – but is far from tackling the root cause. Measures vary by department – ​​from banning people from watering a garden or field at certain times to a complete ban on using water to wash your car.

After talks with French water companies and farmers’ representatives, the agriculture ministry announced that the Third Agricultural Revolution, a fund launched in April aimed at helping farmers tackle climate change, would be doubled to €40 million.

The French government also announced in late April that water companies could spend an additional €100 million to help farmers adapt to climate change or to build new reservoirs.

France has done better than most developed countries in responding to the threat of climate change, and began switching from fossil fuels to nuclear power in the 1970s. President Emmanuel Macron recently reiterated his support for nuclear energy.

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Even so, the measures aimed at tackling current drought pale in comparison to the forces of climate change driving it. France must make long-term changes to its agricultural model, says Haziza, including a shift away from the current production-oriented paradigm – which fuels the drought problem by driving deforestation.

“The whole system is spinning out of control,” he said. “We are dealing with climate change.”

This article is translated from the original in French.


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