French drought alert after driest winter since 1959

Two people walk their dogs near the partially dry Lake Montbel, south-western France, on February 21, 2023

France is facing drought restrictions after its driest winter for more than 60 years. Following a month of no significant rainfall, the country is now in a state of alert.

Local officials will gather on Monday to assess the situation “territory by territory”, Ecological Transition Minister Christophe Béchu has said.

Last year was France’s hottest year on record, according to national weather agency Météo-France. Records were broken elsewhere in Europe – in the UK, Spain and Italy.

The hot temperatures triggered drought conditions that many regions are yet to recover from. Snowfall in the Italian Alps is down by 53% and water levels in the Po basin of Italy’s largest river are 61% below normal, according to researchers.

A state of emergency was declared last July in five northern regions surrounding the River Po because of the 2022 drought. Low tides in Venice have meant gondolas and water taxis are unable to move around because of muddy canals and the foundations of buildings in the Grand Canal have become exposed.

Last month, a report published by Nature Climate Change warned that the Alps, Europe’s most important mountain range for supplying rivers, had seen a 5.6% reduction in snow cover duration per decade over the last 50 years.

A gondola is pictured in a canal during a severe low tide in the lagoon city of Venice, Italy, February 17, 2023
Low tides in Venice have grounded gondolas and water taxis

The drought in Italy has raised questions about how to manage water crises, which experts say will become more frequent due to climate change. Italian environmental group Legambiente has appealed to the government to agree a national water strategy. “2023 has just begun but it’s showing worrying signs in terms of extreme weather events and drought levels,” said director Giorgio Zampetti.

In France, the ecological transition minister said that “soft” restrictions could be imposed after next Monday’s meeting with local leaders, to take effect in March to avoid “catastrophic conditions” during the summer months.

Météo-France said between 21 January and 21 February there had been no precipitation at all, referring a cumulative total of less than 1mm rainfall for the whole of France.

Snow cover in the Pyrenees and Alps was also significantly lower than normal during a period considered crucial for replenishing France’s groundwater reserves. Rain was expected to return to southern France on Wednesday, the agency said, and the next three months would prove decisive.


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