Satellite images show agricultural land and vegetation destroyed by high temperatures and lack of water.
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Dried up rivers and soils, low water table levels… The Pyrénées-Orientales department is in disarray due to the lack of water. The territory has been suffering the effects of drought since 2021. The year 2024 begins as 2023 ended: it did not rain a single drop in the department and the rainfall deficit has already reached 80% for the month of January. In 2023, only 245 mm of precipitation was recorded, compared to the usual 560 mm. “2023 is the driest year recorded in this department since measurements began in 1959”summarizes Simon Mittelberger, climatologist at Météo-France.
The satellite images below, taken two years apart in the areas of Ille-sur-Têt, Millas and Corbère, show agricultural plots and vegetation yellowed in the middle of winter. These municipalities are under close surveillance. They were already deprived of drinking water in June 2023 due to the drought of a borehole, reported France Blue Roussillon. In total, 42 municipalities are still in tension, according to the Pyrénées-Orientales prefecture in his file dating from January (PDF).
Result: the land is completely dried out, making any planting difficult. “The soils remained dry throughout the year and did not benefit from rewetting this winter. In this department, the soils are in a situation worthy of full summer”, deplores the climatologist. A variation of -90% compared to normal in the humidity index of surface soils was observed on the Prades-Céret axis on January 23.
Farmers and wine growers are among the main victims of the situation. “A lot of help and responses have been provided to them and are being developed at the national level”, explains the Pyrénées-Orientales prefecture to franceinfo. Among them, the establishment of an emergency fund of 80 million euros to support wine growers or even aid of one million euros “intended for farms that are in great economic fragility due to the impact of drought”.
Unsurprisingly, the situation is not better for groundwater. “Since the end of summer 2023, there has been no significant rainfall even though it is a period favorable to groundwater recharge. This observation is all the more worrying as this new deficit is combined with that of the previous hydrological year.explains the Joint Syndicate for the protection and management of aquifers in the Roussillon plain in his latest report (PDF). Sixteen sampling locations are below the crisis level, five are “at their historic low”.
Important controls are carried out to preserve water resources. “More than 400 control operations were carried out during 2023 and around thirty infractions were noted”, details the prefecture. These operations carried out under the authority of the public prosecutor will be renewed in 2024.
But how can we explain such a rainfall deficit? The Pyrenean massif creates a sort of atmospheric barrier, which prevents rain from the west from reaching the territory. “Added to this is a very hot year 2023, the second hottest measured after 2022. All these elements caused a lot of evaporation,” explains Simon Mittelberger.
Global warming worsens drought
This situation is linked to global warming which causes a rise in temperatures, causing more evaporation and a longer growing season (where plants develop and consume water). An observation made by Météo-France across the entire South-East: “Precipitation has shown a slight decline of around 10% over the past 50 years, notably a drop in winter and a lengthening of the dry season in late summer and early autumn.”
In the future, climate projections anticipate an overall drop in precipitation over the Mediterranean basin, coupled with more intense episodes of heavy precipitation. A combination which risks causing significant flooding.