Drought in Europe: City calls water ‘blue gold’ in one of its worst droughts on record

On this small farm in the heights of Seillans, a commune in the Var in southern France, the fields are bare except for the parched remains of the last harvest. Normally, eggplants, tomatoes, peppers and melons thrive here. Now the fields are fallow.

The Messelis reservoirs first emptied after last winter was remarkably dry. She then had to rely on tap water to grow the organic fruits and vegetables that make up the baskets she sells to neighbors and at local markets.

Then in May, the local authorities also tightened the taps.

France is suffering from what authorities say may be its worst drought on record. It’s a similar picture across much of Europe – more than 60% of land in the European Union is under drought warnings or more severe alerts, according to the European Drought Observatory. .
Rain has been so rare that major rivers are drying up in places. The Loire and Rhône in France, the Po in Italy and the Rhine in Germany all experienced particularly low water levels, some of them even falling, impacting transport, agriculture and energy production. .

Now showers are hitting several parts of the country. In the Loire region of central France, they triggered floods. The ground is so parched, like a dry sponge, that it simply cannot absorb as much rain. In Paris, the floods that hit Tuesday evening forced 10 underground metro stations to close. The stormy weather relieved the heat, but did little to break the drought. What is needed is less intense and more consistent rain over much longer periods of time.

In January, when concerns about the dry winter surfaced, authorities in Seillans offered to sell emergency water supplies from Messelis that had been trucked in at €20 ($20.40) per cubic meter ( about 264 gallons), she said. Private providers offered only slightly cheaper rates. Normally, she would pay around 50 cents ($0.51) for the same amount on tap.

It was an impossible option for her.

“It’s not worth starting,” the 54-year-old farmer told CNN. “It’s almost like we’re working just to pay for water.”

Unlike generations past, Messelis’ neighbors today are more likely to have a swimming pool than a vegetable garden, a somewhat cruel irony for her this summer: in the first period of water restrictions, residents were still allowed to fill their pool, while their crops have withered.

“It was a shock moment,” she said. “It’s so obvious that the priority [should be] to eat.”

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In May, the inhabitants of Seillans were put under water rationing, at the rate of 150 liters per day and per person in the most affected part of the town. It wasn’t long before the rest of Seillans were also given daily limits, albeit above 200 litres.

This should be enough to cover basic needs – an average French person consumes 149 liters per day. But without control, it is easy to use up hundreds of liters more. Just running a faucet while brushing your teeth or between rinsing the dishes wastes six liters of water per minute.

Seillans was one of the first towns in France to run out of water for its inhabitants this year, but at the beginning of August, around a hundred towns were in the same situation, according to the French Minister for Ecological Transition, Christophe Béchu.

Many parts of the Var region recorded about 80% less rainfall than the long-term average between the beginning of July and August 10, according to the drought mission of the regional direction land and sea. no measurable rain at all.

The region is now “in crisis,” mission chief Julien Assante told CNN.

Traditional sinks or "washhouses"  in Seillans to sit empty because the stream that feeds them has dried up.
Droughts in the Mediterranean region, where Seillans is located, have already increased in frequency due to the man-made climate crisis, and the heat waves that can exacerbate them are also more frequent and intense, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The warmer the Earth gets, the more aridity, droughts and fire-prone weather the region will experience.
And the drought doesn’t just affect farmers and households. With this, intense forest fires occurred. More than 780,000 hectares (over 3,000 square miles) across Europe have burned so far this year, according to the European Forest Fire Information System. France’s firefighting resources are so exhausted that colleagues from Romania, Italy, Poland and Austria, as well as planes from Greece and Sweden, have been called in to fight the flames.

New rituals

Among the Ricou, the drought triggered a new ritual. Every few days, Brigitte Ricou climbs to the bottom of her grove to photograph her water meter. This is the best way to monitor how much she, her husband and her visiting grandson are consuming.

“We watch our meter a lot,” she told CNN from her kitchen in lower Seillans, where there is a daily limit of 200 liters per capita. She said estimating how much water each person uses each day is difficult and is something that takes practice and thought.

She and her husband have implemented a series of measures to limit their water consumption, from washing food in bowls to using the same water for their plants. They use bottled water to drink, take shorter showers, and don’t flush the toilet after each use.

Brigitte Ricou counts the water consumption in her home after reading her meter.

“Sometimes I drastically lower my consumption to get to my 200 litres,” she says, adding that she doesn’t see the quota as a right, as some people do, but as a maximum allocation. “This water, it is precious.”

For the mayor of Seillans, René Ugo, water is more like a “sacred” resource. A small stream that ran through the town year-round was once the cornerstone of various businesses in lower Seillans, from a perfumery to an oil press, he said. But as it dried up, so did business. This year, it hasn’t flowed at all.

“It was a warning,” Ugo said, referring to his observations of dry conditions in January. “I was afraid of what could happen and those fears came true.”

And in Seillans, the palliative measures go far beyond rationing – the town now delivers fresh water by truck. The local town hall oversaw the purchase of a water tanker, which now makes eight round trips to replenish water tanks in the most affected neighborhoods. Filling up from a fire hydrant supplied by an underground source – water naturally filtered by the rock – the truck deposits 8,000 liters at a time.

Although the mayor recognizes that this is a short-term solution, it is also an investment for the future. There are no plans to sell the truck at the end of the dry season, he says, implicitly acknowledging that the village could again face such shortages.

Daniel Martel fills a water truck bought by the local authorities in the village of Seillans to fill the reservoirs of a neighborhood that no longer has running water.

It’s also a cost local residents will have to bear, with higher water bills, the mayor said, another sore spot as the cost of living crisis rages on.

For local policeman Philippe Grenêche, extreme drought has become the new norm, and is even part of its rhythm.

He and his colleague are now patrolling the village looking for evidence of water infractions: green lawns, for example, are a sure sign of sprinkler use, which is prohibited; pools that appear to have been filled are another sign of violation.

People are sometimes even caught stealing water from fire hydrants.

“We had black gold,” Grenêche told CNN, referring to the value of oil, as his patrol car drove through the hills of Seillans. “And now, with all that, we have ‘blue gold’.”

Journalist Amandine Hess contributed to this report.