‘Most Severe’ Drought Grips France as Extreme Heat Persists in Europe

PARIS — France declared Friday that it was in the grip of its “most severe” drought, one that has also desiccated large areas of Europe this summer, causing wildfires and imperiling crops as temperature records shatter across the continent.

“This drought is the most severe recorded in our country,” Élisabeth Borne, the French prime minister, said in a statement on Friday.

Ms. Borne said France had received insufficient rainfall and had been hit in recent weeks by an “accumulation of successive heat waves,” increasing demand for water even as precious reserves evaporated in seemingly endless days of sweltering heat. She urged the French to be “very vigilant” about their water usage.

Water restrictions are already in place in almost all of mainland France, and officials have been on patrol in the past few weeks to ensure that residents and businesses comply.

Over half of France’s regional departments are classified as being in a “crisis” situation that bars people from washing their cars or watering their lawns and prevents farmers from irrigating some crops, frustrating those, like potato growers, who have been forced to let their fields wither.

Drinking water reserves have already dried up in over a hundred municipalities around the country, the authorities said. Gérardmer, a popular resort town in eastern France, announced that it would pump water from its lake for household use for only the fourth time in its history.

Lac des Brenets in eastern France on Thursday. Drinking water reserves have already dried up in over a hundred municipalities around the country, the authorities said.Credit…Fabrice Coffrini/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“It’s worrying for the future,” Stessy Speissmann, the town’s mayor, told the BFMTV news channel on Thursday, “because if these situations persist this early in the year, and repeat year after year, we are going to have to find other solutions.”

Ms. Borne, the prime minister, did not provide numbers in her announcement, but this week Météo France, the national weather forecaster, said that last month was the driest July recorded in more than 60 years, with just 9.7 millimeters, or about 0.38 inches, of rainfall.

Other parts of Europe have also been gripped by scorching temperatures and severe drought, with more heat waves and little rain expected in the coming days and weeks.

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In Britain, bans on using outdoor hoses were announced in two parts of the country this week after England experienced its driest July since 1935. In Spain, towns in Andalusia have restricted water usage as well.

In Germany, environmentalists expressed worry over a growing number of lakes and rivers that have dried up in the center of the country, threatening the survival of fish and other wildlife.

And in Italy, 2022 will be remembered as the driest year since 1800, “at least until now,” said Ramona Magno, of Drought Climate Services, a research center.

“The drought persists, and the situation is getting worse as months pass without rain,” she said, especially in Italy’s northwestern regions where the drought classification has fluctuated between extreme and severe, and has already affected thousands of farmers. The National Research Council’s climate unit said 2022 was on track to be Italy’s hottest year on record, according to data.

In northeast Italy, saltwater from the Adriatic Sea has been flowing back into the Po River, putting agriculture in the fertile Po Delta at risk.

“It’s bringing agriculture to its knees,” Ms. Magno said.

Heat waves in Europe are increasing in frequency and intensity at a faster rate than almost any other part of the planet, according to scientists, who say that global warming and other factors like the circulation of the atmosphere and the ocean all play a role.

Irrigating fruit trees in Bonloc, in southwestern France, on Wednesday. Water restrictions are already in place in almost all of mainland France.Credit…Iroz Gaizka/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

While scientists say that tying a single heat wave to climate change requires more analysis, there is little doubt that heat waves around the world are becoming hotter, more frequent and longer lasting.

And global warming increases the likelihood of drought, as higher temperatures dry out soils and vegetation and cause more precipitation to fall as rain than snow, which can affect water availability for agriculture. Climate change can also affect precipitation patterns around the world, making dry areas drier.

While Europe was not facing a heat wave as severe as the record-breaking one last month, temperatures in some areas were still intense.

Spain’s State Meteorological Agency indicated that “in July, the heat has hardly abated” and that temperatures were expected to remain high over the weekend. In Cercedilla, a town north of Madrid where many escape to when temperatures rise, Angela Morán, a cafe owner, said she was looking forward to heading to Andorra, on the country’s northern border, at the start of September to escape the heat.

“All I can think of is some cold weather,” she said.

In Germany, more than 100 firefighters battled flames that engulfed parts of Grunewald, a forest in the west of Berlin, after munitions and fireworks exploded at the city’s bomb disposal site on Thursday morning.

It was still unclear whether near-record heat had started the explosions, but the flames quickly tore through dry trees in the surrounding forest, forcing the authorities to shut down a city highway and train line. The fire had been largely contained by Friday morning.

In Britain, although only two water companies have imposed a ban on outdoor hoses, others are already warning that restrictions could be brought in if the dry weather persists. The ban currently affects millions of people in southern England, barring them from cleaning cars, watering gardens or filling pools. Rule-breakers in some areas could be hit with a 1,000 pound fine, or about $1,200.

The drought has been particularly devastating for European agriculture, which was already suffering from an abnormally dry spring season, parching crops, making it harder to feed livestock and raising worries about reduced harvests.

This week, the European Union’s executive arm urged the bloc’s member states to reuse treated urban wastewater for farm irrigation.

“Freshwater resources are scarce and increasingly under pressure,” Virginijus Sinkevicius, a union environment commissioner, said in a statement, adding that “in times of unprecedented temperature peaks, we need to stop wasting water and use this resource more efficiently.”

In Italy, Coldiretti, a confederation of national agricultural producers, said last week that 250,000 farms were struggling because of the drought and soaring energy costs. One farmer out of 10 might never recover, the association said in a statement. On Thursday, the outgoing Italian government allocated some 200 million euros, or $204 million, to assist farmers.

But the drought has struck in other ways as well.

In the Italian town of Borgoforte, a few miles south of Mantua, an unexploded World War II-era bomb emerged from the Po riverbed as waters declined, forcing the evacuation this weekend of 3,000 residents, local news media reported.

In Germany, the Rhine — the country’s most important water transport route — was so low that some ships have been forced to reduce their cargo loads. Uniper, a German power utility, even announced Thursday that it would reduce output from its largest coal-firing power plants because insufficient coal could be shipped to the plant via the Rhine.

And in France, which gets about 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear energy, heat waves have hampered power plants because they use water to cool their reactors. Several have been forced to reduce production over the past month, or to exceed normal temperature limits for the water that they release back into natural waterways.

Christophe Béchu, the French minister for environmental transition, said Friday in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence region, ahead of meetings with farmers deprived of water, that the drought was unheard-of — at least now.

“Because of climate change,” he said, “we are going to have to get used to these kinds of episodes.”

Reporting was contributed by Euan Ward from London, Elisabetta Povoledo from Rome, Francheska Melendez from Madrid, and Christopher F. Schuetze from Hanover, Germany.

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