1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Water crisis in France: Drought-hit regions rely on tankers

Andreas Noll
May 16, 2023

Coucouron has been receiving its drinking water by road. The surrounding region was previously not thought to be at risk of drought. The French government has announced a national plan to use water more efficiently.

Two people walking along toward a body of water that has clearly receded
The water levels of many French lakes are still alarmingly low, as here in Lake Montbel in the south of France in FebruaryImage: VALENTINE CHAPUIS/AFP/Getty Images

Apart its low mountain range, the only tourist attraction in Coucouron, a village in France's Massif Central region, is a lake where families would go to enjoy a swim. However, since the drought last summer, the water level in the lake has dropped so drastically that this is no longer an option.

The water shortage is a big topic of conversation in the village. With almost 800 inhabitants, it's a focal point in the sparsely populated Ardeche department. It's not just the lake that is parched; the ground is, too. The grass in the fields and meadows, usually lush and green, stayed brown this year right through till spring. Even in winter, there were weeks in which not even a single drop of rain fell. People there now only have drinking water because it is being transported to the village, 1,000 meters (3,281 feet) above sea level, from other municipalities.

Coucouron has been suffering from drought for almost a year. Until recently, an abundance of small natural springs reliably supplied the small community with clean water. Now, the drought has gone on for so long that the majority of these springs have dried up. None of the villagers can remember anything like this happening here before. The region usually has a lot of rainfall. In fact, three major rivers rise within 30 kilometers of here: the Ardeche, the Allier, and the Loire, France's longest river.

Help from neighboring municipalities

Water has been coming to Coucouron by road since July 2022. At the moment, large tankers capable of holding around 12,000 liters (3,170 gallons) of water are driving to Saint-Cirgues-en-Montagne, 13 kilometers away, twice a week, to fill up from a spring in the neighboring village.

It's an expensive business for Coucouron: Transporting the water by road has already cost €100,000 ($108,685). Then there are the indirect economic consequences. The cheese dairy — which has a staff of 15, making it one of the most important local employers — has had to temporarily reduce production of its successful blue cheese.

Panorama shot of a village of red-roofed houses, nestled amid green hills and trees
The water for Coucouron is being pumped from the source in neighboring Saint-Cirgues-en-MontagneImage: Andreas Noll/DW

But it's not only the cheese-making process that uses a lot of water. Large quantities are also required for milk production. There are a handful of farms in the village: Just one of these has a herd of 120 dairy cows, and each cow drinks around 100 liters of water a day. An entire tanker of water barely meets the farm's needs for a single day. All over the village, people are having to make very careful calculations.

Until recently, water shortages and the consequences of climate change were not a threat for Coucouron. On the contrary: The region is seen as a popular retreat for people keen to escape the heat of the south of France in summer.

At an altitude of 1,000 meters, the canton of Haute-Ardeche seldom gets hotter than 30 degrees Celsius (86 degree Fahrenheit), even in July and August. In winter the mercury frequently drops below -10, and the village seems deserted — but this winter water still had to be brought in by tanker for the small number of people who remained in residence.

A grey-haired man lifts plastic bottles of water out of a full delivery van
Municipal employees delivering drinking water to elderly residents in Corbere-les-Cabanes in the PyreneesImage: RAYMOND ROIG/AFP

Macron presents a national water strategy

Coucouron is just one of many places in France where the water supply is failing. Drinking water was supplied by tanker to more than 500 municipalities last summer — an untenable situation for an ambitious country like France. For some time now, water has been on the agenda at the highest political level.

In late March, French President Emmanuel Macron visited the drought hotspot of Savines-le-Lac in the Alps, where he presented a national water strategy. He wants France to reduce consumption by 10% by 2030. This saving is imperative, the president said, because climate change means that by 2050 France will have around 30–40% less water at its disposal. "This water plan is, above all, a plan of abstinence and of long-term efficiency in water usage," Macron said.

President Macron stands on bare shingle in front of a body of blue water
President Emmanuel Macron has announced a government plan to address the water shortagesImage: Sebastien Nogier/AP/picture alliance

Strict bans on water usage have been part of daily life for some time now. This past winter and spring, people living in the affected areas were not allowed to water their lawns or vegetable gardens. As well as saving water, Macron is also looking at reusing it — in wastewater treatment plants, for example. At the moment, only 1% of water is reused in France; in Spain, the figure is 15%.

Improving infrastructure

Along with appeals to citizens to save water and stricter regulations for agriculture, the French government also plans to invest in infrastructure. In Coucouron, they've already started. The problems with the water supply have prompted the community, which has got bigger over the years, to inspect its water network.

Using ultrasound techniques, a specialist found four large holes in the water pipes, which were immediately sealed. This measure alone reduced water consumption by 40 cubic meters a day. The drought had caused the ground had become rock-hard, and this apparently contributed to the emergence of the leaks.

Hilly countryside with conifers in the background; in the foreground, a wooden signpost with yellow signs indicating hiking paths to Coucouron and other villages
The Ardèche region is a popular retreat for summer visitors: Locals worry the water shortage may affect tourismImage: Andreas Noll/DW

However, it won't be enough just to improve the pipeline network and hope for plenty of rain. Construction is currently underway to connect the village to a water source in a remote hamlet six kilometers away. Work on securing the new drinking water supply began in March. If the pipeline goes into operation in June as planned, it should solve the problem — and the tankers can go back to transporting milk instead of water.

The municipality is investing around one million euros to develop this new water source. Its small budget doesn't stretch to this — the village has had to take out a loan, and will be forced to tighten its belt in future. But the officials in the town hall hope that by the time the tourists return to the bathing lake this summer, things will be back to normal.

This article was translated from German.

Record temperature worsen Spain's drought