Country report - 4. France

Posted: 26 January 2001

Author: Sally Zalewski

Author Info: Sally Zalewski is a journalist based in Paris, France.

France's toxic water

A study, carried out for the WWF by the eminent Professor Lefeuvre from the Paris Natural History Museum, has set out the full extent of the alarming decline of water quality by pollution from nitrates and pesticides. Sally Zalewski reports.

Although France is still able to make water safe for drinking by using sophisticated and expensive technology, the authors of the report ponder a future when the point of no-return is reached in terms of polluted water supplies.

The finger of blame is being pointed at agricultural policies which have long supported intensive animal raising and other environmentally unfriendly farming practices. A worrying amount of nitrates have been found - originating from animal waste and direct applications of fertilisers and pesticides on crops to increase production. Intensive agriculture also favours the destruction of hedgerows and the drainage of marshy fields, which both play vital roles as natural filters by efficiently eliminating the immediate penetration of pesticides and nitrates into rivers, lakes and the water table. drinking freshwater© Sally ZalewskiIntensive farming methods, encouraged by subsidies, rely heavily on the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. Surface water resources are particularly in danger as they are in more direct contact with pollutants.

A dam built three years ago near Rennes, with a view to supplying drinking water (at a cost of US$ 450 million), has had its distribution stopped by public health authorities because of pesticide contamination. Similarly, the regional national park of the Marais Poitevin, in western France, has lost its status as a park because of rapidly absorbed pesticide run-off from maize crops planted in drained water meadows.

Pig pollution

It will come as no surprise to the French to learn that the western part of the country is the hardest hit. Brittany is still affected by the oil spill from the tanker Erika in the winter of 1999-2000. At the bottom of Brittany's nitrate problems is the excrement from 8 million pigs, 3 million head of cattle, and 120 million chickens which is equivalent to that of a town of 24 million inhabitants.

The development of this uncontrolled intensive pig-farming policy has been greatly aggravated by hand-outs of subsidies pegged to productivity.

Tourism in the area could also be compromised by the progressive invasion of green seaweed which is nourished by nitrates in the animal sewage. Already between 200,000 and 300,000 tons are collected each year by local councils. Since 1983, some beaches are regularly invaded by "red tides" of toxic seaweed, also feeding on the sewage, which means that the region's mussel and oyster beds are often contaminated and not fit for consumption.

Many consider Brittany's drinking water unsafe, and over the past two years the town of Rennes has been distributing bottled mineral water to schools so that children will not have to drink tap water, considered to contain too many pesticides. French wetland© Sally ZalewskiAll of the 11 departments (Alliers, Aude, Bas-Rhin, Côtes d'Armor, Dordogne, Jura, Loiret, Marne, Nord, Seine Maritime, Vendée) taking part in the study were found to have drinking water that contained the highest levels of nitrates authorised by the EU (50mg/liter), whereas French experts recommend a limit of 25mg/liter. Although tap water rarely exceeds safety limits, the quality of untreated water was very worrying: in southwestern France, 40 per cent of the stations monitoring the quality of the water table revealed high nitrate pollution.

This problem does not limit itself to France. In England, surfers have had to create an association "Surfers Against Sewage" to fight water pollution that has caused severe sickness. By sounding the alarm, Professor Lefeuvre is, in effect, asking citizens of Europe to be vigilant. What, he asks, will be the answers when all our water resources are degraded? "Let's stop favouring -- as we have been doing for the last 50 years -- finding a cure for the problem when we should be developing a preventative policy; and by doing so, stopping the abusive use of natural resources and optimising the role of natural habitats".

Professor Lefeuvre, and WWF, wants urgent action to stop further destruction of wetlands to cut down the pollution of water resources by effectively treating agricultural, industrial and urban waste, to crack down on abusive farming practices and to limit water consumption.