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France extracts approximately 31 billion cubic metres of fresh water from its natural sources each year. Faced with an ongoing winter drought that could lead to water restrictions this summer, FRANCE 24 looks at the different ways the country consumes water.
France experienced a historic drought in the summer of 2022, followed by an equally dry winter. Alarm bells are still ringing this year as the country braces itself for yet another arid summer. On Wednesday March 1, 2023, four French departments were already subject to restrictions: Ain, Isère, Bouches-du-Rhône and the Pyrénées-Orientales. Inhabitants of these areas are forbidden to water their lawns, fill their swimming pools, and farmers are prohibited from irrigating their crops.
“And the number [of departments facing restrictions] will inevitably grow,” warned Ecological Transition Minister Christophe Béchu on Monday evening, as he called on authorities of France’s seven major river basins to issue restriction orders “as of now” to anticipate a summer drought.
Whether in agriculture, industry or domestic use, “sobriety” and “saving water” are the current watchwords being used by the French government. FRANCE 24 decided to take stock of how water is used and consumed across the country.
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Around 31 billion cubic metres of fresh water extracted yearly
Every year, France extracts around 31 billion cubic metres of fresh water from its rivers and groundwater sources, according to the Ministry of Ecological Transition. Next to the 208 billion cubic metres of water available on average, this may not seem like much. But in order to maintain a balanced ecosystem, it’s essential for most water to stay in nature.
Add to this the fact that the renewal of water supplies can vary greatly from one year to the next, depending on the amount of rainfall. In 2019 for example, it was estimated that only 142 billion m3 of water were available, far from the average 208 billion. And that’s exactly what’s worrying scientists and meteorologists for the summer of 2023. According to French national meteorological service Météo-France, 15 of the past 18 months have seen rainfall deficits.
Another issue is that most water extraction takes place in the summer, when groundwater and river levels are already at their lowest. The French Ministry of Ecology estimates that 60% of all water consumption takes place between June and August.
So where does all this fresh water go? While some of it is used domestically, flowing through our taps and showerheads, the rest is used for economic purposes, primarily to cool (mostly nuclear) power plants.
It’s important to note that water used to cool power plants and supply water wheels comes from surface water like rivers or reservoirs, while water used for drinking, agriculture or industry comes from both surface water and groundwater.
Agriculture, main consumer of water
It’s also important to consider that water extracted for consumption is water that will not be returned to its natural source after being used. Water sent to nuclear power plants, however, is used in an open circuit and therefore returned to nature after it is used. As for agriculture, water used for livestock is never sent back.
Between 2008 and 2019, the average amount of water extracted for consumption reached 5.3 billion cubic metres per year in France. And this time, agriculture took the lead as the main consumer of water, far ahead of power plant cooling, industry and drinking water.
“In agriculture, water is mostly used to irrigate crops,” explains Sami Bouarfa, a researcher at the French National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment (INRAE) and deputy director of the AQUA department. “Even if the share of crops that need irrigation represent only 6% of all cultivated land.”
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And the type of water use varies greatly from department to department. According to the 2021 environmental report by the Ministry of Ecology, the Adour-Garonne basin in southwest France is where most extractions for agriculture take place. The Rhône-Méditerranée basin, on the other hand, uses water in power plants and is the most water-hungry area. As for the Seine-Normandy and Picardy basins, water extracted is mainly used to produce drinking water.
A French person consumes 149 litres of drinking water daily
In 2020, 5.5 billion cubic metres of water were pumped from natural sources and transformed into drinking water. But by the end of the year, only 3.7 billion had been consumed, according to the latest report from France’s Observatory of Public Water and Sanitation Services (SISPEA). The discrepancy is entirely due to leakages that occur in the pipes carrying our drinking water from source to tap. SISPEA estimates that 20% of all drinking water in France, or one in every five litres, is lost to leakages.
Asides what is wasted, a French person will consume 149 litres of drinking water per day on average, close to the European average of 200 litres, but far behind the daily consumption of a person from the US, who consumes 600 litres on average. In countries with insufficient water resources, daily consumption can drop to less than 20 litres per person.
According to the Water Information Centre, around 93% of water used in French households is dedicated to hygiene – showering, flushing the toilet or using the washing machine. The remaining 7% goes on food. Car washing uses an average of 200 litres of water, showering about 50 litres and washing clothes around 60 litres.
In addition to domestic use, there is also the collective use of drinking water in schools and hospitals.
This article was translated from the original in French.
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