The flower-filled medieval hilltop town of Callian, former home of the late fashion designer Christian Dior, has proved so attractive to wealthy incomers that alongside its 4,000-strong population, it boasts 1,000 private swimming pools.
Yet the mayor of the southern French town, François Cavallier, says the influx of second homeowners and tourists must stop — or risk draining the town dry as the region endures a two-year drought.
“We must dissuade people from coming here,” he said. “This won’t last for ever but for now, it would be irresponsible to attract people here and then run out of water.”
The dry weather across a swath of southern France has particularly affected Callian and the other hill towns around Fayence, where visitors have long flocked to enjoy a slice of Provencal art de vivre.
The drought has forced the mayors of nine towns in the area to take drastic measures such as rationing water to maintain supplies and even banning construction of new homes and pools for five years.
These measures have cast a shadow over the area’s key tourism industry, which sustains the economy yet weighs on scarce water resources at the hottest time of year. That tension is only likely to worsen as the climate warms.
In the hill towns, with water levels in the nearby river already at lows not usually seen until July, individuals have been limited to 150 litres of water a day to try to avoid cut-offs when the local population doubles to about 60,000 in summer.
While the nine villages of Fayence are particularly vulnerable thanks to their hilltop geography, the dry winter after the drought of last summer has left the arc of cities along the Mediterranean coast from Perpignan to Nice facing a water crisis.
Farmers and vineyards are competing for water with the campgrounds, hotels, and golf courses that attract tourists. French people who live here full-time mutter about luxurious vacation residences that consume far more water than ordinary homes to maintain their grounds and pools.
The mayor of Châteauneuf-Grasse near Cannes told Liberation newspaper the biggest consumers of water last summer were “VIPs including prime ministers and royalty” — in an apparent reference to Silvio Berlusconi and the former king of Belgium, who have homes there.
Local media outlets and officials call it France’s own “war over water”. Richard Evence, the prefect — or state representative — in the Var region, puts it more diplomatically: “There are conflicts over usage.”
There are real questions over whether this area of southern France, which has experienced decades of strong population growth, can continue on the same development path as climate change pushes temperatures higher.
People move here to achieve the dream of owning a house with a pool and a garden to enjoy the more than 300 days of sun a year, and the economy is largely based on tourism and construction.
Evence said the Var department would soon start a broad study to analyse its water needs and resources in an effort to plan future infrastructure and water use. “There is a real debate over whether we can keep going on as we have done,” he said.
In Perpignan, water scarcity was so acute in March that the church revived a centuries-old tradition of holding a ceremonial procession to pray for rain.
Private swimming pools have become a flashpoint: France boasts 3.4mn of them, second only to the US. Towns where drought has hit hard have begun to impose limits on filling them, while others have banned the sale of above-ground pools.
A hotel industry executive in Nice was pilloried for suggesting that tourists should not be asked to contribute to water savings efforts since it would ruin their fun on the Riviera.
The region’s water infrastructure was conceived largely in the 1950s and 1960s, but is now being tested by the drought and rising temperatures. In addition to natural rivers fed by the Alps, the system relies on man-made canals and artificial lakes built for hydropower by state-backed electricity company EDF, which also serve as reservoirs.
Emma Haziza, a hydrologist and expert on adapting to climate change, said Provence and the Pyrenees Orientales — the area around Perpignan on the border with Spain — had become much drier in recent years, and weather patterns there were changing in ways not yet well understood.
“Today people are waiting for the next rainfall but it’s not going to solve the problem,” she said. “We need a whole new approach to managing water to take less out of the ground.”
Such considerations are what convinced René Ugo, the longtime mayor of Seillans, that the ban on all new construction was necessary.
Since last summer, the town of 2,700 — where a third of the homes are vacation homes or seasonal rentals — has been forced to rely on water delivered by truck. Officials at the water agency tracked each home’s consumption remotely last summer and slapped the worst offenders who flout the caps with flow reducers.
“This year is even worse than last,” said Ugo. “If it doesn’t rain, we will have water outages this summer.”
To cope, the nine towns including Seillans are preparing a system to send text alerts to people to warn them if the water will be cut off. Other constraints are being phased in, such as a ban on washing cars and limits on the hours people can water lawns and gardens.
Not everyone looks favourably on the new approaches, however.
A business owner in the town who declined to be named said he wished the Seillans mayor would stop talking about drought, since it was bad for tourism. Others argue the government should have anticipated the problems and invested more in water infrastructure such as connecting to reservoirs.
Laurent Largillet, the owner of Center real estate agency in Fayence, said the politicians were going too far, and predicted that the construction ban would be challenged in court.
“I think they are being alarmist in the hopes of getting people to slow down their water use,” he said. “But it is very damaging.”