France faces full brunt of climate change with heat waves, wildfires, drought

Effects of this combination have drastically impacted people and agriculture, food production

Shweta Desai   |15.08.2022

France faces full brunt of climate change with heat waves, wildfires, drought



France is reeling under the effects of record heat from abnormally hot and dry weather intensified by four heat waves, a historic drought that has sent water levels plunging across the country, and several outbreaks of wildfires that have left thousands of hectares of forest land barren.

The crisis began unusually early at the end of a short winter. The spring season this year was the warmest since the start of the 20th century, according to a report by weather service Meteo-France.

France was also hit by heatwaves in 2007, 2011 and 2020, but this year the temperatures were record-breaking.

The beginning of summer in June led to the onset of an unusually early period of heat waves — described as consecutive days of soaring temperatures — across the country. Since then, four episodes of heat waves in three months have exceeded over 28 days.

“The number of days of heat waves has been multiplied by nine,” Meteo France explains in its analysis of the heat waves and climate change released on June 30.

It added that the occurrence of heat waves, “which was on average one summer every five years before 1989, has become annual since the year 2000.”

The frequency and intensity of the heat waves are only expected to increase from now on until 2050, it forecast.

Drought and Fires

In the last three months, several major fires destroyed three times more land than the annual average for the past 10 years, according to a report in the French daily Le Monde.

More than 60,000 hectares (148,263 acres) of forest have been gutted since the start of the year, according to the European Forest Fire Information System, which is a record since 2008.

The Le Monde report estimates the fires to have released more than 1 million tons of carbon. It takes 50 grown trees to capture a single ton of CO2 emissions, so the damage to global warming caused by the emission of carbon dioxide and methane in the air is irreparable.

In the southwestern region of Gironde alone, massive fires in July and August have burned over 27,000 hectares (66,718 acres) of land — close to three times the surface of Paris. In the northwestern tip of Brittany close to the English Channel, which rarely witnessed wildfires in the past, two major incidents including in the mythical forest of Broceliande have burned over 350 hectares (865 acres).

After the local authorities exhausted all manpower and resources trying to combat the flames, the government had to seek assistance under the EU Civil Protection Mechanism for additional reinforcements and first responders to contain the fires.

Low and infrequent rainfall during the summer has aggravated the fires, as a small spark in the dry grass would result in a major fire raging for days.

The lack of precipitation combined with the very high temperatures has also contributed to an early drought. Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, who established an inter-ministerial crisis unit on Aug. 5 to coordinate the means of dealing with the drought, described the condition affecting the whole country as “historic” and “exceptional.”

“The exceptional drought that we are currently experiencing is depriving many municipalities of water and is a tragedy for our farmers, our ecosystems, and biodiversity,” a statement from her office said.

The Ministry of Ecological Transition’s latest report on Aug. 12 indicated that 93 of the 96 departments in mainland France are affected by water restriction decrees. Of these, 74 departments are in crisis, meaning municipalities have ceased non-priority usage, including for agricultural purposes, and are only authorized to withdraw water for priority uses like health, civil security, drinking water and sanitation purposes.

The low water levels for the first time have caused unusual scenes across the country. The Loire, the longest river in France, reached such low levels of water that it could be crossed on foot in certain places.

Hundreds of municipalities had to resort to ordering tankers — a sight more common in South Asian countries than in the heart of Europe — after they ran out of drinking water.

Several hamlets in Alpes-de-Haute-Provence in the south and the Loire region in the west, where the water sources have dried up, are now dependent on tankers that supply drinking water two to three times a week, BFMTV news reported.

Some other municipalities have adopted innovative methods like Gerardmer in the Vosges department bordering Germany in the northeast, which is pumping drinking water from the local lake, Lac de Gerardmer.

Groix island in the Morbihan department of the Brittany region and Rogliano village in Haute-Corse, Corsica have acquired desalination units to provide drinking water to the people, the report added.

Milk, cheese, wine and olive production impacted

The effects of the drought have severely paralyzed the famed agricultural sector, which is known for France’s finest produce of cheese, wine and olive oil. Restrictions on water usage for agricultural purposes and less rain have led to a lack of groundwater replenishment, and dry soil conditions have affected crops of corn and wheat as well as cattle fodder.

According to the Agriculture Ministry’s statistical service, Agreste, the persistent drought as well as the heat waves impacted the growth of the grass, and the cumulative production of permanent grasslands since the beginning of the year fell 21% below normal. Less grass and greener pastures mean less food for cows for grazing, affecting their milk production. To maintain the milk stock, farmers have to buy fodder, driving up the milk costs.

Benoit Rouyer, economic director of the National Interprofessional Center for Dairy Economics (Cniel), said the situation could keep the prices of dairy products high and reduce the possibility of butter, cream and cheese production, according to a report by Sud Ouest news.

The fallout of this prediction has already been seen in the Salers commune of the Cantal department of Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes region, which has stopped the production of its trademark cheese from Aug. 12 for an indefinite period. The majority of the 76 producers of the Salers cheese, whose main criteria is that the cows eat at least 75% pasture grass, find it unsustainable to feed their animals amid the burning drought.

Farmer Laurent Roux of Gaec de la Calsade village in Badailhac told France Bleu Pays d’Auvergne radio that his cows have not been grazing since June 25.

“The ground is so dry, hard, that in places, it looks like ashes. It’s dust,” he said.

In the southern Provence region, which is home to two-thirds of the country’s olive oil production, the drought has drastically damaged olive cultivation.

Jean-Benoit Hugues, owner of the Moulin Castelas mill in Les Baux-de-Provence, which produces cold pressed olive oil, is worried about losing 50% of his production. The strong heat wave has been “catastrophic” for the olives, he said.

“We lost a lot of harvests, and the olives which survived are much too small, with very little flesh,” he said on BFM Marseille Provence news.

Vine growers have observed a similar impact on the harvest of grapes. From Bordeaux to Provence, vineyard producers are concerned that the lack of water will have a quantitative impact on the harvest as less water is already causing grains of the grapes to grow small in size, wine industry specialty news site Vitisphere reported.

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