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Where water is called ‘blue gold’: A town grapples with one of its worst droughts on record

<i>Joseph Ataman/CNN</i><br/>Daniel Martel fills a water truck bought by local authorities in the village of Seillans on August 10 to replenish reservoirs in a district that has run out of tap water.
Joseph Ataman/CNN
Daniel Martel fills a water truck bought by local authorities in the village of Seillans on August 10 to replenish reservoirs in a district that has run out of tap water.

By Joseph Ataman, CNN

For well over a century, water has gurgled through a web of gutters and channels on Cécile Messelis’ farm, flowing into an underground reservoir and earthen troughs to nourish crops sown across terraced fields.

In 2020, that stream began to falter. This year, it stopped altogether: Messelis’ fields now crackle in the sunlight; her stone cistern echoes with thirst.

On this small farm in the upper reaches of Seillans, a commune in the Var region of southern France, the fields are bare but for the parched remnants of the last harvest. Normally, aubergines, tomatoes, peppers and melons thrive here. Now, the fields lie fallow.

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

Then in May, local authorities tightened the taps as well.

France is suffering what authorities say is likely 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.

The rain has been so scant that major rivers are drying up in parts. The Loire and Rhone in France, the Po in Italy and the Rhine in Germany have all experienced particularly low water levels, some of them have even shrunk, impacting transport, agriculture and energy production.

Now downpours are hitting several parts of the country. In the Loire region of central France, they’ve triggered flooding. The soil is so parched, like a dry sponge, it simply can’t absorb that much rain. In Paris, floods that hit Tuesday evening forced 10 underground Metro stations to close. The stormy weather has brought relief from the heat, but little to break the drought. What’s needed is less intense and more consistent rain over much longer periods of time.

In January, when worries about the dry winter emerged, Seillans’ authorities proposed to sell Messelis emergency water supplies that had been trucked in at €20 ($20.40) per cubic meter (around 264 gallons), she said. Private suppliers were offering only slightly cheaper rates. Normally, she would pay just around 50 cents ($0.51) for the same amount from the 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 the water.”

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

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

Dark clouds

In May, the people of Seillans were put under water rationing, given a 150 liters a day per person in the worst-hit part of the commune. It wasn’t long until the rest of Seillans were given daily limits too, although of a higher 200 liters.

It should be enough to cover basic needs — the average French person consumes 149 liters daily. But going unchecked, it’s easy to use hundreds of liters more. Just running a tap while brushing teeth or between rinsing dishes wastes six liters of water every minute.

Seillans was one of the first communities in France to run out of sufficient water for residents this year, but by early August, some 100 communes were in the same position, according to French Ecological Transition Minister Christophe Béchu.

Many parts of the Var region have seen around 80% less rain than the long-term average between the start of July and August 10, according to the drought mission for the regional land and sea directorate. Some areas haven’t seen any measurable rain at all.

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

Droughts in the Mediterranean region, where Seillans sits, have increased in frequency already because of the human-driven climate crisis, and the heat waves that can exacerbate them are also more common and more intense, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The more the Earth warms, the more the region will experience aridity, droughts and fire weather conditions.

And drought isn’t just impacting farmers and households. With it has come intense wildfires. More than 780,000 hectares (more than 3,000 square miles) across Europe have burned so far this year, according to the European Forest Fire Information System. So exhausted are France’s firefighting resources that colleagues from Romania, Italy, Poland and Austria, as well as aircraft from Greece and Sweden, have been called in to battle the blazes.

New rituals

In the Ricou household, the drought has sparked a new ritual. Every few days, Brigitte Ricou climbs to the back of her shrubbery to photograph her water meter. It’s the best way to monitor how much she, her husband and her visiting grandson are using.

“We look at our meter a lot,” she told CNN from her kitchen in lower Seillans, where there is a 200-liter daily limit per resident. She said it was difficult to estimate how much water each person uses every day, and that it was something that required practice and thought.

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

“Sometimes I lower my consumption drastically to make my 200 liters,” she said, adding that she doesn’t view the quota as a right, as some people do, but as a maximum allowance. “This water, it’s precious.”

To Seillans Mayor René Ugo, water is more like a “sacred” resource. A small stream that used to run through the town all year round was once the lifeblood of a variety of businesses lower Seillans, from a perfume shop to an oil press, he said. But as it dried up, so too did business. This year, it hasn’t flowed at all.

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

And in Seillans, the stopgap measures go well beyond rationing — the town is now trucking freshwater in. The local town hall oversaw the purchase of a water tanker, which now makes eight trundling return trips to restock the worst-hit districts’ water reservoirs. Filling up from a fire hydrant fed by an underground source — the water naturally filtered by the rock — the truck deposits 8,000 liters at a time.

While the mayor recognizes it’s a short-term solution, it’s also an investment for the future. There are no plans to sell the truck at the end of the dry season, he says, in an implicit acknowledgment that the village could face such shortages again.

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

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

He and his colleague now patrol the village looking for evidence of water-releated offences: Green lawns, for example, are a sure sign of sprinkler use, which is banned; swimming pools that appear to have been refilled are another sign of violations.

People are sometimes even caught stealing water from fire hydrants.

“We had black gold,” Grenêche told CNN, referring to the value of petroleum, as his patrol car wound through the hills of Seillans. “And now with all this, we’ve got ‘blue gold.'”

The-CNN-Wire
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Journalist Amandine Hess contributed to this report.

Article Topic Follows: CNN - Europe/Mideast/Africa

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