the rivers of France at a worrying level

The historic drought that is hitting France is affecting many river activities. Some channels are even closed to navigation.

The drought that hit France this summer is putting the waterways to the test. While restrictions on the use of water are imposed on almost the entire territory – a first – the level of the rivers, rivers and canals is historically low, forcing the Voies navigables de France (VNF) to close certain axes to navigation. “As of August 2, nearly 580 km of canals are closed on the 6700 km of rivers, rivers and canals» managed by the public institution, notes Cécile Voussard, Rhône Saône regional director of VNF.

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The Rhine at its lowest flow

The Rhine, the backbone of Western Europe stretching over 1233 kilometres, is particularly suffering. For about ten days, the river has been in low water (low water due to drought). At the end of July, VNF recorded a flow of 550 m3/s in Strasbourg, i.e. half the average flow. Last year at the same time, a flood had even brought it to 4000m3/s. Boats today are forced to reduce their cargo to a third of their usual weight so that their hull does not touch the bottom.

The level of the river downstream, in German territory, is also critical. According to the newspaper Die Welt,the Rhine may soon be impassable for freight transport“. The river level at Kaub, an important crossing point for trade, is expected to be 47 centimeters on the weekend of August 6-7. Or just seven centimeters from the impassability limit.

A container ship passes the Loreley Rock, loaded to a third of its capacity, on the Rhine, July 19, 2022. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay

The extent of the drought could also complicate the operations of replacing Russian gas with coal in anticipation of this winter, around a third of this resource being conveyed on the Rhine, indicates the investment bank Berenberg.

25 million cubic meters of water already injected into the Garonne

The Southwest is also very affected by the lack of rainfall. The level of the Garonne is experiencing worrying alert thresholds, despite constant low water support (addition of water to the natural flow). At the beginning of August, the river which flows over 529 km shows a flow of 40m3/second, compared to 70 to 100m3/second on average in summer.

The early heat wave in June caused an accelerated melting of snow in the mountains which was therefore unable to feed the river in July. High temperatures have also resulted in significant water needs for vegetation and agricultural production. To keep the river level,of the 80 million cubic meters of water in reserve, 25 million have already been released into the Garonne», warns Jean-Michel Fabre, president of SMEAG (Joint union for studies and development of the Garonne) and departmental adviser.

The level of the Garonne in Toulouse has been very low since the beginning of the summer. Frédéric Scheiber / Hans Lucas via Reuters Connect

According to the elected official, the Toulouse river has already reached an alert level. Or the department is very dependent on the river. “The Garonne provides drinking water to more than 1 million inhabitants”irrigates 70,000 hectares for agriculture“, emphasizes Jean-Michel Fabre. Its water is also used by “the paper industry“, and for “the cooling of the Golfech nuclear power plant“, he adds.

In the heart of summer, cruise lines are also penalized. For example, these are forced to cancel their stopovers dependent on the quays of Bordeaux to the vineyards upstream. In Toulouse, on the Canal du Midi provoked by tourists, VNF asks the boats to group together when passing through the locks, in order to save water. “In these periods of drought, it is increasingly difficult to reconcile all uses“, notes VNF.

Difficulties in navigating the Loire

With a flow of only 121 m3/second against 475 m3/second at the beginning of July, the level of the Loire is also falling sharply. A traditional boat company based in Saumur confirms that it is increasingly difficult to pass at certain points on the river, to the point of “scrape in the gravel“.

We have never seen that, there are no more fish“says an excursion manager. “Normally, mariners use between seven and eight boat propellers per year, there are more than 18 propellers“, she is alarmed. The temperature of the longest river in France also poses difficulties: “In order to cool the engines, the skippers are forced to use blocks of ice“, indicates the Saumur company. Finally, some destinations are no longer offered to customers.

In Saumur, the level of the Loire is very low. Water is non-existent in places. Frederic Petry / Hans Lucas via Reuters Connect

River tourism is also strongly affected by the closure of the canals. These man-made pathways are highly dependent on rainfall. “For lack of draft, especially in the Grand Est and in Burgundy, many canals are closed to navigation: Marne-Rhine Canal, Ardennes Canal, Vosges Canal, Champagne-Burgundy Canal, the Meuse, Burgundy canal…enumerates Cécile Avasard.

Fishermen worried

On the fishing side, the National Federation is part of its pessimism. “Between now and 2070, in particular under the effect of climate change, the flow of rivers will decrease drastically (by 15 to 40%). If we keep the current model, the level of the Seine, for example, will benefit by around 30%“. Just like the number of fish.

What about the next few years? For Jean-Michel Fabre, it is essential to change behavior if we want to be able to cope with the vagaries of the climate. “The water does not come to the tap by itself. It is a common good that must be preserved“, he insists.

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