France France France France

Fresh water resources France

Vulnerabilities Alps

Observed hydrologic regime changes of Alpine rivers

Global warming affects precipitation volumes in the Alps, the contribution of rain and snow to these volumes, and the timing of snowmelt. An overall decrease in snow cover is observed during the 20th century for low- and mid-elevations. Trends are less significant at higher elevations, and snowpack even increased due to higher precipitation totals. These changes affect stream flow of mountain catchments. These changes were investigated for a large number of catchments over the period 1961–2005 in six Alpine countries (Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Slovenia and Switzerland), with catchment size varying mainly between 100 and 1000km(22).

Over the last decades, hydrologic regime of Alpine rivers has changed. These changes vary with the character of hydro-climatic regimes. During 1961–2005, all regimes show a consistent shift toward an earlier start of 
snowmelt flow, with a trend magnitude of 11 days, along with an increase of 18 days in the duration of the snowmelt season. Also, distinct differences have been observed between glacial- and snowmelt-dominated regimes, and mixed snowmelt–rainfall regimes (22):

  • Pure glacial- and snowmelt-dominated regimes are found in the heart of the Alps. These hydrologic regimes are mainly controlled by the storage of precipitation as snow and ice during the cold months. Lowest flows occur between December and February, highest flows during spring and summer. For these regimes, winter droughts have become less severe: drought durations have decreased by an average of 25 days over 1961–2005 and volume deficits have decreased by an average of 47%. Glacial regimes, in particular, show a consistent behavior with a melting season shifted by a week earlier, an increase of 29% in the snowmelt volume, and an enhanced contribution of the glacier to the total stream flow of corresponding catchments.
  • Mixed snowmelt–rainfall regimes are found in pre-alpine regions. They exhibit two low flow seasons: during the winter when part of the precipitation is stored as snowpack, and during the summer due to a combination of earlier snowpack shortage, lack of precipitation and high evapotranspiration. For these regimes, high flows are mainly driven by snowmelt during the spring and by abundant precipitation in autumn. For these regimes, winter droughts seem to have become more severe: volume deficit in the Southeastern Alps (mostly Slovenia) has increased by 10%.

Whether these trends are linked to climate change or to climate decadal variability remains an open question (22). 

Projections hydrologic regime changes of Alpine rivers

Global warming will have much more impact on droughts than on floods in the Alps. Simulated changes in flood magnitude are negligible whereas droughts will become more intense and last longer (23).

Climate change will have a much stronger effect on droughts than on floods in the Alps, scientists concluded in a recent study. They simulated discharge characteristics for 925 catchments in the Alps under future global warming levels of 1°C, 2°C, and 3°C. According to their results, river floods in the Alps will not change significantly in magnitude and will not last longer. The only change in floods they observed in their results is a change in seasonality: the timing of floods is expected to shift toward earlier in the year with increasing temperatures. Future droughts, on the other hand, are projected to become more intense, develop larger deficits, last longer, and become slightly more widespread with increasing temperatures (23).

These future projections of changes in floods and droughts align well with observations in the past. Observations so far do not show clear changes in flood magnitude (24) but do show earlier floods occurrences over the last decades (25) because of an earlier start of spring snowmelt season. Droughts have become more intense (26) because of decreased snowmelt and precipitation and increased evapotranspiration (27). In addition, these findings agree with the projections of other studies that show clear increases in streamflow drought deficits and intensities for the future for Central Europe and the Alps (28).

Vulnerabilities France

The warming trend will lead to the withdrawal of snow cover in the Alps and the Pyrenees, having major socio-economic consequences (decline in recreational activities relying on snow).  Because of this, the periods during which water level is low (from June-July to October-November) will lengthen, resulting in a decline in the production of electricity by nuclear plants and dams, while also modifying the ecological characteristics of rivers (8).

If the warming rate is constant, and if, as expected, glacier ice melting per unit area increases and total ice-covered area decreases, the total annual yield passes through a broad maximum: “peak meltwater”. Peak-meltwater dates have been projected between 2010 and 2040 for the European Alps (19), and for the second half of this century for the glaciers in Norway and Iceland (20).

Multiple impacts of climate change on flows in France in 2050 are projected (12):

  • in winter, a moderated reduction, as an overall average, in flows, except for the south-east of the country and the Alps, where they will increase. In spring, slight changes in general;
  • in summer and autumn, a major reduction in flows;
  • a high increase in the number of low-water level days;
  • a reduction in flood flows well below average, but an increase in some cases;
  • a reduction in soil humidity regardless of the season, except in mountain areas in winter and/or spring;
  • a sharp decrease in snow precipitation and maximum height of accumulated snow at low altitude, which lessens the higher you go.

It is estimated that the deficit in water to satisfy the current requirements for drinking water, industry and irrigation in France will be in the order of 2 billion cubic metres in 2050 (12). Increases in potential groundwater recharge are consistently projected for the 21st century, however, in northern Europe (Denmark, southern England, northern France) (14).

The impact of climate change on the water resources of the Seine and Somme basins of northern France was studied for 147 hydrological projections based on seven hydrological models, seven climate models, three downscaling methods, and two emissions scenarios (A2 and A1B) (18). The results showed a general agreement on a decrease of the river flow at the outlets of both basins by at least 14 % by the 2050s and at least 22 % by the 2080s. Projected mean monthly river flow reductions in the Somme basin are around 20 % in 2050 and 30 % in 2080, while in the Seine basin, the decrease is larger in summer (30 % in 2050, 40 % in 2080) than in winter (0 % in 2050 and 15 % in 2080).

The Rhone River

The regime of the Rhone River is strongly influenced by lake regulation and hydropower operation at the outlet of Lake Geneva. Since the construction of the dam, finalised in 1995, water level has been much more stable. The regime of the Rhone River downstream of Lake Geneva is depending on the regulation of the lake at the outlet and on discharge in the downstream tributaries (21).

According to climate change projections for the period 2070–2100, discharges in the Rhone basin are likely to decrease significantly by the end of the century relative to 1980–2010 (21). Besides, seasonality of run-off will change substantially as well. At Lyon, projected reduction of mean annual flow is in the order of some 50% (both with and without a change in lake regulation at the outlet of Lake Geneva). These projections are based on a large number of global climate models and a low and high emissions scenario (RCP 2.6 and RCP 8.5). Climate change projections point to smaller discharge during low flows, but higher low flows in its sub-basins. Regarding floods, high flows exhibit a general tendency to decrease, whereas potential upwards can be observed for the more extreme, but less frequent floods (21).

Agricultural restrictions

The agricultural sector, the main user of water resources, with 48% of total consumption in France, will be particularly affected by the impact of climate change on resources (13).

Drinking water restrictions

The drinking water supply represents almost 18% of water drawn in France. While there are currently no major problems with drinking water supply, the basins will be faced with more frequent water shortages because of climate change, even in the absence of increased demand. The reduction in the quality of the resources, accentuated by climate change, will again reduce the amount of fresh water available for domestic purposes. These developments may lead to an increase in water prices (difficulties in distribution, treatment costs) (13).

Waste water treatment restrictions

In the event of a drop in the watercourse regime, maintaining environmental standards will mean more intense treatment of waste water and therefore greater treatment costs. Some impacts of climate change on the water treatment networks will be positive (faster biological reactions), others negative (additional energy consumption, problems relating to odours, increased corrosion phenomena). Crisis management policies will have to be organised to tackle the increased risks – particularly sanitary ones (13).

Industry and energy production restrictions

While the quantitative impact of the energy production sector on water resources is currently relatively moderated, its qualitative impact is not insignificant (water temperature, contamination by biocides). The impacts of climate change on water will affect energy production in two ways (13):

  • reduction in cooling yield in the case of a combined increase in air and water temperatures associated with a weak flow;
  • repercussion from conflicts of use on managing hydroelectric plants.

Europe: five lake categories

There are almost one and a half million lakes in Europe, if small water bodies with an area down to 0.001 km2 are included. The total area of lakes is over 200,000 km2; in addition the manmade reservoirs cover almost 100,000 km2. The response of European lakes to climate change can be discussed by dividing the lakes into five categories (9):

Deep, temperate lakes

Typical representatives of this class are e.g. Lakes Maggiore, Ohrid, Geneva and Constance with mean depths of 177, 164, 153 and 90 meters, respectively. Due to the great depth and relatively mild winters, there is usually no ice cover. The future climate change in Europe may suppress the turnover in deep lakes. This implies the enhancement of anoxic bottom conditions and an increased risk of eutrophication. The oxygen conditions can also be anticipated to deteriorate due to increased bacterial activity in deep waters and surficial bottom sediment.

Shallow, temperate lakes

Balaton (600 km2, 3 m) in Hungary and Müritz (114 km2, 8 m) in Germany belong to this class. Increasing water temperatures may result in intensified primary production and bacterial composition. The probability of harmful extreme events, e.g. mass production of blue-green algae, will increase. The impacts may extend to fish life; changes in species composition and reduced fish catches will be anticipated. The use of the expression 'thermal pollution' is well justified for these lakes.

Boreal lakes

Ladoga (17 670 km2, 51 m), Onega (9670 km2, 30 m) and Vänern (5670 km2, 27 m) are the largest in this class, being also the three largest lakes in Europe. This group includes about 120 lakes with an area exceeding 100 km2. Most lakes of the boreal zone mix from top to bottom during two mixing periods each year. Shortening of the ice cover period will be the most obvious consequence of climate change in these lakes. This could improve the oxygen conditions in winter and spring.

Arctic lakes

These are mainly small water bodies in northern Scandinavian mountains and in the tundra region. Arctic lakes are generally considered to be particularly sensitive to environmental changes. Melting permafrost may seriously threaten the ecosystems of arctic lakes. In some cases the whole lake may disappear as a consequence of ground thaw and enhanced evaporation.

Mountain lakes

To this class belong all high altitude lakes in central Europe and also those located in southern Scandinavia. Even if mountain lakes were connected by channels, physical and ecological constraints limit species migration between them. In a warming climate, there is no escape route; the only possibility for survival is adaptation.

Present situation in Europe

Water demand

In the EU as a whole, energy production accounts for 44% of total water abstraction, primarily serving as cooling water. 24% of abstracted water is used in agriculture, 21% for public water supply and 11% for industrial purposes (3).

These EU-wide figures for sectoral water use mask strong regional differences, however. In southern Europe, for example, agriculture accounts for more than half of total national abstraction, rising to more than 80 % in some regions, while in western Europe more than half of water abstracted goes to energy production as cooling water. In northern EU Member States, agriculture's contribution to total water use varies from almost zero in a few countries, to over 30% in others (7). Almost 100% of cooling water used in energy production is restored to a water body. In contrast, the consumption of water through crop growth and evaporation typically means that only about 30% of water abstracted for agriculture is returned (3).

Currently, just two countries, Germany and France, account for more than 40% of European water abstraction by manufacturing industry (3).

Water supply

In general, water is relatively abundant with a total freshwater resource across Europe of around 2270 km3/year. Moreover, only 13% of this resource is abstracted, suggesting that there is sufficient water available to meet demand. In many locations, however, overexploitation by a range of economic sectors poses a threat to Europe's water resources and demand often exceeds availability. As a consequence, problems of water scarcity are widely reported, with reduced river flows, lowered lake and groundwater levels and the drying up of wetlands becoming increasingly commonplace. This general reduction of the water resource also has a detrimental impact upon aquatic habitats and freshwater ecosystems. Furthermore, saline intrusion of over-pumped coastal aquifers is occurring increasingly throughout Europe, diminishing their quality and preventing subsequent use of the groundwater (3).

Virtually all abstraction for energy production and more than 75% of that abstracted for industry and agriculture comes from surface sources. For agriculture, however, groundwater's role as a source is probably underestimated due to illegal abstraction from wells. Groundwater is the predominant source (about 55%) for public water supply due to its generally higher quality than surface water. In addition, in some locations it provides a more reliable supply than surface water in the summer months (3).

Fresh water reservoirs

Currently about 7000 large dams are to be found across Europe, with a total capacity representing about 20% of the total freshwater resource (3). The number of large reservoirs is highest in Spain (ca 1200), Turkey (ca 610), Norway (ca 360) Italy (ca 570), France (ca 550), the United Kingdom (ca 500) and Sweden (ca 190). Europe's reservoirs have a total capacity of about 1400 km3or 20% of the overall available freshwater resource (6).

Three countries with relatively limited water resources, Romania, Spain and Turkey, are able to store more than 40% of their renewable resource. Another five countries, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Sweden and Ukraine, have smaller but significant storage capacities (20–40%). The number and volume of reservoirs across Europe grew rapidly over the twentieth century. This rate has slowed considerably in recent years, primarily because most of the suitable river sites for damming have been used but also due to growing concerns over the environmental impacts of reservoirs (3).

Projected future situation in Europe

Water demand

Appliance ownership data is not currently readily available for the new Member States but it is believed that rates are currently relatively low and likely to rise in the future. Higher income can also result in increased use and possession of luxury household water appliances such as power showers, jacuzzis and swimming pools. Changes in lifestyle, such as longer and more frequent baths and showers, more frequent use of washing machines and the desire for a green lawn during summer, can have a marked effect on household water use. The growth in supply within southern Europe has been driven, in part, by increasing demand from tourism. In Turkey, abstraction for public water supply has increased rapidly since the early 1990s, reflecting population growth and a rise in tourism (3).

Water stress over central and southern Europe is projected to increase. In the EU, the percentage of land area under high water stress is likely to increase from 19% today to 35% by the 2070s, by when the number of additional people affected is expected to be between 16 and 44 million. Furthermore, in southern Europe and some parts of central and eastern Europe, summer water flows may be reduced by up to 80% (4).


Runoff is estimated to increase north of 47°N by approximately 5-15% by the 2020s and 9-22% by the 2070s. North of 60°N, these ranges would be considerably higher, particularly in Finland and northern Russia (1). Average annual runoff in Europe varies widely, from less than 25 mm in southeast Spain to more than 3000 mm on the west coast of Norway. Climate change is thus going to make the distribution of water resources in Europe much more uneven than it is today. And even today's distribution is highly uneven, particularly considering the distribution of population density. Almost 20% of water resources are north of 60°N, while only 2% of people live there (2).

Not only will climate change affect the spatial distribution of water resources, but also their distribution in time. In northern Europe, the flows in winter (December to February) will increase two- to three-fold, while in spring they will attenuate considerably, in summer increase slightly and in autumn almost double by the period 2071-2100 (2).

Adaptation strategies in Europe

EU policy orientations for future action

According to the EU, policy orientations for the way forward are (11):

  • Putting the right price tag on water;
  • Allocating water and water-related funding more efficiently: Improving land-use planning, and Financing water efficiency;
  • Improving drought risk management: Developing drought risk management plans, Developing an observatory and an early warning system on droughts, and Further optimising the use of the EU Solidarity Fund and European Mechanism for Civil Protection;
  • Considering additional water supply infrastructures;
  • Fostering water efficient technologies and practices;
  • Fostering the emergence of a water-saving culture in Europe;
  • Improve knowledge and data collection: A water scarcity and drought information system throughout Europe, and Research and technological development opportunities.

Managed aquifer recharge

Comprehensive management approaches to water resources that integrate ground water and surface water may greatly reduce human vulnerability to climate extremes and change, and promote global water and food security. Conjunctive uses of ground water and surface water that use surface water for irrigation and water supply during wet periods, and ground water during drought (15), are likely to prove essential. Managed aquifer recharge wherein excess surface water, desalinated water and treated waste water are stored in depleted aquifers could also sup­plement groundwater storage for use during droughts (16,17). Indeed, the use of aquifers as natural storage reservoirs avoids many of the problems of evaporative losses and ecosystem impacts asso­ciated with large, constructed surface-water reservoirs.


A number of measures exist that may potentially reduce the use of publicly supplied water. These can be broadly grouped into the categories of water saving devices; greywater re-use; rainwater harvesting and the efficient use of water in gardens and parks; leakage reduction; behavioural change through raising awareness; water pricing; and metering. Since treating, pumping and heating water consumes significant amounts of energy, using less publicly supplied water also reduces energy consumption (3).

In Denmark and Estonia, for example, a steady rise in the price of water since the early 1990s has resulted in a significant decline in household water use. Metering leads to reduced water use; in England and Wales, for example, people living in metered properties use, on average, 13% less water than those in unmetered homes (5).

In 2001 a law was approved that reinforces the principle of proportional billing, dependent on the volume of water consumed, applying also to the fees charged to farmers (who previously paid very little as compared to other users). This will incite all parties to save water, and act as an indirect responsive measure to risks of drought and water scarcity. In particular, this should incite farmers to improve the effectiveness of irrigation systems for intensive farming, or even to adopt new farming techniques that are less dependent on available water supply. In addition, thanks to this law, towns will be able to better manage flood zones by setting up flood-related community service tasks, in particular to adapt the areas around flood zones (8).

Desalination increases the total available freshwater resource and, in this respect, may be preferable to further depletion of the surface and groundwater stocks. Detrimental environmental impacts are associated with desalination plants, however, in particular their energy consumption and the production of highly concentrated brine that may be released into sensitive marine waters. Furthermore, expanding supply from desalination plants does not provide any incentive to either reduce water use or improve the efficiency of use. Decisions on the suitability of future desalination plants need to be addressed on a case-by-case basis, accounting for all environmental and economic issues (3).

Adaptation strategies in France

Water pricing policy

In France, according to a report published in 2007, water pricing is based on cost-recovery over 85% for household and industry, including environmental charges (15% of tariffs). In some cities with great numbers of tourists specific tariffs can be put into place. In agriculture, cost-recovery varies from 40% for collective systems to 100% for individual systems.There is no specific water pricing for the dry season (10).


Water use in agriculture can be reduced by (13):

  • reducing irrigation water requirements by accepting a loss in yield less than proportional to the reduction in volume produced;
  • reducing irrigation volume;
  • diversification of watering calendars;
  • optimising efficiency of water supplied when watering is justified;
  • implementing agricultural systems that are more robust and less demanding on water resources;
  • nitrogen input reduction policy


The references below are cited in full in a separate map 'References'. Please click here if you are looking for the full references for France.

  1. Alcamo et al. (2007)
  2. Eisenreich (2005)
  3. EEA (2009)
  4. EEA, JRC and WHO (2008)
  5. Environment Agency (2008a), in: EEA (2009)
  6. EEA (2007), in: EEA (2009)
  7. IEEP (2000), in: EEA (2009)
  8. République Française (2001)
  9. Kuusisto (2004)
  10. European Commission (DG Environment) (2007)
  11. Commission of the European Communities (2007)
  12. Boe (2007), in: ONERC (2007/2009)
  13. ONERC (2007/2009)
  14. Hiscock et al. (2011), in: Taylor et al. (2012)
  15. Faunt (2009), in: Taylor et al. (2012)
  16. Scanlon et al. (2012), in: Taylor et al. (2012)
  17. Sukhija (2008), in: Taylor et al. (2012)
  18. Habets et al. (2013)
  19. Huss (2011), in: IPCC (2014)
  20. Jóhannesson et al. (2012), in: IPCC (2014)
  21. Ruiz-Villanueva et al. (2015)
  22. Bard et al. (2015)
  23. Brunner and Gilleland (2024)
  24. Bertola et al. (2020); Blöschl et al. (2019), both in: Brunner and Gilleland (2024)
  25. Blöschl et al. (2017); Fang et al. (2022), both in: Brunner and Gilleland (2024)
  26. Brunner et al. (2023); Scherrer et al. (2022), both in: Brunner and Gilleland (2024)
  27. Duethmann and Blöschl (2018); Moraga et al. (2021), both in: Brunner and Gilleland (2024)
  28. Forzieri et al. (2014); Baronetti et al. (2022), both in: Brunner and Gilleland (2024)