Drought in Europe: A city calls water ‘blue gold’ in one of the worst droughts on record.

Drought in Europe: A city calls water ‘blue gold’ in one of the worst droughts on record.

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

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

In May, the local authorities also attracted the roosters.

France is suffering what authorities say is probably its worst drought on record. It’s a similar picture across much of Europe – more than 60% of the country in the European Union is affected by drought warnings or more severe warnings, according to the European Drought Observatory. The rain was so little that large rivers partially dried up. The Loire and Rhone in France, the Po in Italy and the Rhine in Germany have all experienced particularly low water levels, some even shrinking, affecting transport, agriculture and energy production.

Downpours are now hitting several parts of the country. They have triggered flooding in the Loire region in central France. The ground is so parched like a dry sponge that it just can’t hold that much rain. Flooding in Paris forced the closure of ten metro stations on Tuesday night. The blustery weather has brought relief from the heat but little to break the drought. What is needed is less intense and more consistent rain over much longer periods of time.

In January, amid concerns over a dry winter, Seillans authorities proposed selling off Messelis’ emergency water supplies, which had been brought in by truck at 20 euros ($20.40) per cubic meter (about 264 gallons), it said you. Private providers offered only slightly cheaper tariffs. Normally she would only pay about 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 just working to pay for the water.”

Unlike previous generations, Messelis’ neighbors now have a swimming pool rather than a vegetable garden, a somewhat cruel irony for them this summer: In the early days of water restrictions, residents were still allowed to fill up their pools while their crops withered.

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

On August 11th, Messelis tends her crops on her farm.

Dark clouds

In May, people in Seillans were rationed at 150 liters of water per person per day in the hardest-hit part of the community. It wasn’t long before the rest of Seillans were getting daily limits as well, albeit from a higher 200 litres.

It should be enough to meet basic needs – the average French person uses 149 liters a day. But unchecked, it’s easy to use hundreds of liters more. Leaving a tap running just to brush your teeth or between washing dishes wastes six liters of water every minute.

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

According to the drought mission for the Regional Directorate of Land and Sea, it rained around 80% less than the long-term average in many parts of the Var region between early July and August 10. Some areas have seen no measurable rain at all.

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

The traditional sink or "lavoirs"  in Seillans sit empty as the stream that feeds them has dried up. Droughts in the Mediterranean region where Seillans sits have already increased in frequency due to the man-made climate crisis, and the heatwaves that can exacerbate them are also occurring more frequently and intensely, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. As the earth warms, the region will experience more dryness, droughts, and fire weather. And drought doesn’t just affect farmers and households. This was accompanied by intense forest fires. 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. France’s extinguishing agents are so exhausted that colleagues from Romania, Italy, Poland and Austria, as well as planes from Greece and Sweden, have been called to fight the flames.

New rituals

The drought has triggered a new ritual in the Ricou household. Every few days, Brigitte Ricou climbs behind her bushes to photograph her water meter. It’s the best way to monitor how much you, your husband and your visiting grandson are consuming.

“We look at our meter a lot,” she told CNN from her kitchen in lower Seillans, which has a daily limit of 200 liters per resident. She said it’s difficult to estimate how much water each person uses each day and that it’s something that takes practice and thought.

She and her husband have taken a number of steps to limit their water use, from washing food in bowls to using the same water for their plants. They drink bottled water, take shorter showers and don’t flush the toilet after each use.

Brigitte Ricou counts the water usage in her home after reading her meter.

“Sometimes I reduce my consumption drastically to get to my 200 liters,” she says, adding that she doesn’t see the quota as a requirement like some people, but as a maximum limit. “This water, it’s precious.”

For Seillan’s mayor René Ugo, water is more of a “sacred” resource. A small stream that flows through the town year-round was once the lifeblood of a variety of businesses in lower Seillans, from a perfumery to an oil press, he said. But when it dried up, so did business. This year it didn’t flow at all.

“It was a warning,” said Ugo, referring to his observations of the drought in January. “I was afraid of what might happen and those fears came true.”

And in Seillans, the emergency response goes well beyond rationing – the town now truckes fresh water. The local town hall oversaw the purchase of a water tanker, which is now making eight round trips to replenish water reservoirs in the hardest-hit districts. The truck fills 8,000 liters at a time from a hydrant fed by an underground spring – the water is naturally filtered through the rock.

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

Daniel Martel is filling a water truck bought by local authorities in the village of Seillans to fill up reservoirs in a district that has run out of tap water.

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

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

He and his colleague are now patrolling the village looking for evidence of water crimes: green lawns, for example, are a sure sign of sprinkler systems, which are prohibited; Swimming pools that appear to have refilled are another sign of violations.

Sometimes people are even caught stealing water from fire hydrants.

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

Journalist Amandine Hess contributed to this report.