European drought: A town calls water ‘blue gold’ in one of worst droughts recorded

European drought: A town calls water 'blue gold' in one of worst droughts recorded
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On this small farm in the upper reaches of Seillans, a commune in the Var region of southern France, the fields are bare except for the parched remnants of the last harvest. Normally eggplants, tomatoes, peppers and melons are grown here. Now the fields lie fallow.

Messelis’ reservoirs have emptied for the first time since last winter had been quite dry. He had to rely on tap water to grow organic fruits and vegetables that made up baskets that he later sold to neighbors and local markets.

Then, in May, local authorities tightened the taps.

France is suffering from what officials say is probably the worst drought on record. Much of Europe has a similar picture – over 60% of the land in the European Union is under drought warnings or more severe warnings. European Drought Observatory.
The rain was so little that the major rivers partly dried up. Loire and Rhone in France, Po in Italy and Rhine in Germany all experienced particularly low water levels, with some even shrinking, affecting transportation, agriculture and energy production.

Now the downpour is hitting various parts of the country. They caused flooding in the Loire region of central France. The soil is so parched that it cannot absorb as much rain as a dry sponge. The flood, which was effective in Paris on Tuesday evening, forced 10 metro stations to close. Stormy weather brought relief from the heat, but little to break the drought. What is needed is less intense and more consistent rain for much longer periods of time.

In January, when concerns about the dry winter arose, Seillans officials offered to sell the trucked emergency water supplies to Messelis for €20 ($20.40) per cubic meter (about 264 gallons). Private suppliers were only offering slightly cheaper prices. Normally, he would pay around 50 cents ($0.51) for the same amount on tap.

This was an impossible option for him.

“It’s not worth starting,” the 54-year-old farmer told CNN. “We work almost exclusively to pay for water.”

Unlike past generations, Messelis’ neighbors are more likely to have a swimming pool today than a vegetable garden, a somewhat grim irony for him this summer: During the initial period of water restrictions, residents were still allowed to fill their pools, while Messelis crops dried up.

“It was a moment of shock,” he said. “Your priority is so clear [should be] for food.”

Messelis deals with plant cultures on his farm on August 11.

Dark clouds

In May, the people of Seillans were rationed 150 liters per person per day in the worst-affected part of the commune. Although 200 liters higher, it wasn’t long until the rest of the Seillans were given daily limits as well.

It should be enough to meet basic needs – the average French person consumes 149 liters per day. But without control, it is easy to use hundreds of liters more. Running just one faucet while brushing teeth or rinsing dishes wastes six liters of water per minute.

Seillans was one of the first communities in France to run out of water for its residents this year, but nearly 100 communes were in the same situation as early as August, according to Christophe Béchu, France’s Minister for Ecological Transition.

According to the drought mission for the regional land and sea directorate, many areas of the Var region saw about 80% less precipitation than the long-term average between early July and August 10. In some areas there was no measurable rain at all.

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

Traditional sinks or 'lavois' in Seillans sit empty as the stream that feeds them dries up.
Drought in the Mediterranean region where Seillans resides has already become more frequent due to the human-caused climate crisis, and heat waves that can exacerbate them are also more common and more intense. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The warmer the world gets, the more drought, drought, and fire weather conditions the region will experience.
And drought isn’t just affecting farmers and households. With it came intense forest fires. More than 780,000 hectares (over 3,000 square miles) have burned so far this year across Europe. According to the European Forest Fire Information System. France’s firefighting resources were so depleted that planes from Greece and Sweden were called in to fight the flames, along with colleagues from Romania, Italy, Poland and Austria.

new rituals

Drought in the Ricou household ignited a new ritual. Every few days Brigitte Ricou climbs behind her bush to take a picture of the water meter. It’s the best way to monitor how much she, her husband, and visiting grandson are using.

“We’re looking at our meter a lot,” he told CNN from his kitchen in lower Seillans, where the limit of 200 liters per day per resident is. He said it’s difficult to estimate how much water each person uses each day, and it takes practice and thought.

She and her husband took a number of measures to limit their water use, 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 calculates her home water consumption after taking readings from her meter.

“Sometimes I reduce my consumption significantly to reach 200 litres,” he said, adding that he sees the quota as a maximum allowance rather than a right as some do. “This water is very precious.”

According to Seillans Mayor René Ugo, water is more like a “sacred” spring. A small creek that runs through town all year long was once the lifeblood of various businesses down Seillans, from a perfume shop to an oil press. But as it dried, so did the business. This year it hasn’t flowed at all.

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

And in Seillans, the temporary measures go far beyond rationing – the town now carries fresh water. The local town hall oversaw the purchase of a water tanker that made eight roundabout return voyages to replenish the water reserves of the worst-affected areas. Filled from a fire hydrant fed by an underground source – water naturally filtered by the rock – the truck accumulates 8,000 liters at a time.

While the mayor acknowledges that this is a short-term solution, it is also an investment for the future. He says he has no plans to sell the truck at the end of the dry season and tacitly admits that the village may face such famines again.

Daniel Martel fills a water truck purchased by local authorities in the village of Seillans to replenish reservoirs in an area running out of tap water.

It’s also a cost that local residents will have to shoulder with high water bills, another pain point as the life crisis bites, the mayor said.

For local police officer Philippe Grenêche, extreme drought has become the new normal and even part of his rhythm.

He and his colleague now patrol the village to look for evidence of water-related crimes: green lawns, for example, are a sure sign of prohibited sprinkler use; Swimming pools that appear to be refilled 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 the patrol car passed through the Seillans hills. “And now with all that, we have ‘blue gold’.”

Journalist Amandine Hess contributed to this report.

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