'The new normal': Farmers face drought despair in parched France

After an unusually dry winter and spring, French farmers fear a repeat of last summer's drought is almost certain, ITV News Science Correspondent Martin Stew reports

Southern France is parched. Rivers are running as low as they normally do in mid-summer and 43 areas of the country are already subject to water restrictions. There are severe drought warnings for this summer after a dry winter failed to replenish water supplies drained by last summer’s record breaking heatwaves. Le Lac de Montbel is a 5km² reservoir south of Toulouse. It should be 60% full at this time of year, instead it's just a quarter full.

That’s lower than you’d usually expect to find at the end of summer, never mind the middle of spring.

Drought expert Maxime Horgues told me this is “100% climate change” warning that these extreme conditions are likely to be the “new normal” as temperatures continue to rise and weather patterns alter.

Extreme conditions like these are likely to become the 'new normal'. Credit: ITV News

The annual quantity of rain has stayed the same, but much fell during the autumn. Extremely heavy rain falling onto baked earth at the end of the summer is the worst case scenario.

Not only did it cause widespread flash flooding but the force of the water saw it wash away into the sea rather than soaking into subterranean aquifers and rivers. Nowhere was this clearer to see than 200 metres underground in the Grotte de Clamouse caves.

They used to flood, filling a subterranean river, 10 times a year. There’s been no sign of that river for six years now.

In the world-famous vineyards they’re worried too. Saplings which previously only needed watering once now need regular care to make the roots take hold.

Even established vines are producing lower yields of grapes. They can still produce quality but as temperatures rise growers warn quantity will be hard to maintain.

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Europeans, particularly in the south of the continent, are being subjected to more heat stress during the summer months as climate change causes longer periods of extreme weather, a study published on Thursday shows.                    

The European Commission's Copernicus Climate Change Service said comparisons of data going back over decades showed record heat last year resulted in hazardous conditions for human health.          

"Southern Europe experienced a record number of days with ‘very strong heat stress,'" defined as temperatures from 38 to 46 degrees Celsius (100 to 115 degrees Fahrenheit), it said.        

The number of summer days with "strong" (32 to 38 Celsius) or "very strong" heat stress is rising across the continent, while in southern Europe this is also the case for "extreme heat stress" days above 46 Celsius, Copernicus said.

"There is also a decreasing trend in the number of days with 'no heat stress'," the report added.

The warning was part of the annual Copernicus European State of the Climate report, which confirmed that Europe experienced its second warmest year on record in 2022.

Some regions of Spain have not seen proper rain in three years. Credit: ITV News

Last summer was also the hottest on record across Europe at 1.4 Celsius (2.5 Fahrenheit) above the reference period of 1991-2020. High temperatures and low rainfall also resulted in widespread drought, while summer       wildfires caused the highest carbon emissions in 15 years, Copernicus said.

This led to record melting of Alpine glaciers, with more than five cubic kilometers of ice disappearing, it said.         What is heat stress?

Heat stress is increasingly viewed as a significant issue worldwide as the planet warms due to human-made climate change.

Experts say it can cause a wide range of health problems, including rashes, dehydration and heat stroke.