France used to experience an abundance of rainfall. However, in the last decade, the country has begun to suffer progressively severe droughts. Notably, “the average volume of renewable water resources (provided by rivers and precipitation that does not return to the atmosphere) has decreased by 14% over the last decade compared to the previous one.” Without sufficient rainfall, water tables cannot replenish, and rivers cannot receive the snowmelt without sufficient snowfall in the mountains. Glaciers are melting in the Northern and Southern Alps, and mountains in February look as snowless as they do in May. According to the worst-case scenario, most of the glaciers in the Alps could disappear by the end of the century.
France experienced 32 consecutive days without rainfall this past winter, the driest winter since record-keeping began in 1959. Record heat and exceptional drought conditions in 2022 and 2023 have already caused considerable damage, as reported in the French High Council for the Climate (HCC) annual report, “Agriculture has been badly hit, with crop yields down 10-30 percent, while the drought conditions have meant “virtually no reproduction” of some amphibians and “low or abnormal reproduction” of waterfowl. Tensions over drinking water have affected more than 2,000 municipalities, while 8,000 others have requested recognition as “natural disasters” due to the drought, which is causing cracks in buildings as a result of the shrinking and swelling of clay soils.” Water shortages also cause maintenance-related problems for the country’s network of nuclear power plants, which don’t all have sufficient water available for cooling.
Climate change could further deprive France of 30% to 40% of available water by 2050. To address water scarcity, France made public in February 2023 a framework for adaptation by the General Inspectorate of the Environment and Sustainable Development. The adaptation plan has several components, namely the reduction of water waste and the reuse of wastewater. Regarding water waste, one out of every five liters of water is lost due to leaks across pipe networks, and their renovation is rarely prioritized among strained municipal budgets. The reuse of wastewater is also a difficult proposition in France, which has stricter regulations than neighboring Spain or Italy, which have explored this option more fully. In a country that currently reuses less than 1% of its water, French President Macron has vowed “to launch 1,000 projects in five years to recycle and reuse water. We want to reuse 300 million cubic meters, or…3,500 bottles of water per French person per year.”
In March 2023, Macron unveiled 53 measures to save water entering summer 2023. His plan aims for 10% water savings for all sectors of the French economy by 2030. However, these targets are less ambitious than other global targets, which call for water withdrawals from nature to decrease by 25% by 2034. Macron’s ‘Water Plan’ has three main objectives, including (1) water use sobriety, (2) optimizing water resource availability, and (3) preserving water quality. The plan focuses largely on innovation and restraint and commits 180 million EUR to fix leaks and upgrade water networks and an additional 500 million EUR per year to the country’s water agencies. Progressive pricing mechanisms will also be implemented to incentivize water conservation among individual households. Among the proposed measures, however, the main lever for change should lie within agricultural irrigation, which accounts for 48% of water consumption in France. However, no new water restrictions were imposed on the agriculture sector, and Macron is relying instead on technological innovation. The Water Plan commits 30 million EUR for ‘intelligent drip systems’ or diagnostic tools which help farmers determine the volumes needed for their crops. Dissenters, however, argue that moderation and innovation are not adequate solutions. Additional efforts should include the introduction of drought-resistant plant species, cultivation techniques that focus on soil conservation, and the preservation of hedgerows and grasslands. Clashes over the provision of water storage equipment and a more holistic vision for agriculture transformation turned violent in March between environmental activists and the national gendarmerie protecting the Sainte-Soline water reservoir or megabases.
The release of Macron’s Water Plan is a positive step as France endeavors to prevent and adapt to climate-related water issues. Once further details about the 53 water-saving measures are released and their impacts measured, the Climate Scorecard will be able to better rate their efficiency. For now, France gets a B rating for moderately effective water management. An A rating would include more measures to encourage less water-intensive agriculture instead of pursuing innovative solutions to maintaining those same water-intensive practices in the face of potentially irreversible climate impacts.
This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard France Country Manager Liana Mehring.
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Valo, Martine. “Agriculture: In France, Two Visions Clash over ‘Megabasin’ Projects.” Le Monde.Fr, 26 Mar. 2023, www.lemonde.fr/en/france/article/2023/03/26/agriculture-in-france-two-visions-clash-over-megabasin-projects_6020756_7.html.