Marseille: full canal and empty streams

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Marseille: full canal and empty streams, The one-handed economist, Margot . . .

Margot writes*

Despite being located in a dry and warm region, Marseille is described as the “world capital of water” by the World Water Forum. Indeed, Marseille is known for its efficient water management and water infrastructures like the canal of Marseille, the Roquefavour aqueduct, or the Palais Longchamp.

The Marseille Canal diverts water from the Durance river, which takes its source in the Alps, takes it to Marseille and provides the city with two thirds of its drinking water (Webzine Voyage). The canal, the primary water source of the city, is the main reason why taps could keep running last summer, when the city experienced the driest summer ever measured in France and the country was hit by several heatwaves (La Provence).

However, the Durance resources are not infinite as several portions of the river dried up last summer (Olive Oil Times). The prefecture of Bouches-du-Rhône had to declare a state of crisis and restrict water use in some areas of Marseille to preserve its water (Olive Oil Times). Restrictions during the maximum alert level included a prohibition to water lawns, to fill swimming pools, to clean waterproofed surfaces or to clean vehicles to name a few (Bouches-du-Rhône Prefecture). Prevention campaigns organized by the city and the water provider fostered collective awareness around water scarcity, encouraged citizens to respect restrictions, reduced demand and ultimately enabled Marseille to preserve its water resources even in a time of intense droughts (La Provence). Hence, while walking around Marseille in July 2022, one could see dry and yellow lawns or empty water fountains, but water would still flow if they turned on their tap (La Provence).

While this scene depicts how water management in Marseille succeeded in coping with water scarcity for urban dwellers, it is not the full picture. Unfortunately, local water streams and rivers independent of the Durance, in the hills surrounding the city were not able to resist droughts and global warming (La Provence). Thus, even if water is available at the tap, the drought affected local ecosystems and farmers who depend on irrigation (La Provence). According to the “Coordination Rurale” farmer’s organization [pdf], droughts in Marseille’s department resulted in crop losses of 30% for several crop types and 50% for olive crops.

Water scarcity in Marseille’s region also threatens biodiversity. For example fishes and insect larvae in dried-out streams or rivers with reduced flow rates are adversely affected (La Provence). The flora is also impacted as La Provence newspaper reported that oak trees died and wild boars and deers came inside villages near Marseille in search for water.

These problems will intensify in the future as drought periods become more frequent. For instance, there was a drought this winter (2023), and Le Monde explains that the river flow of the Huveaune, a river near Marseille, has never been so low in February.

Bottom line: Water scarcity and droughts in Marseille do not impact everybody in the same way. There is a discrepancy between the urban canal and the local streams and rivers. Consumers who rely on the Marseille Canal experience water scarcity as simple water restrictions during droughts whereas consumers who rely on local streams and rivers are economically impacted by water scarcity. The flora and fauna in and around streams are directly threatened by water scarcity.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice