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Freshwater (France)

Why should we care about this issue

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

Water is part of the common heritage. It is a source or a living environment for humans and many animal and plant species and  essential for many economic activities. Water resources are limited in quantity, as the droughts of the last few years in particular have shown. Their conservation is a fundamental challenge.

Water is abstracted for a wide variety of uses: drinking, irrigation, energy generation, industrial activities, etc. In addition, aquatic environments are a dumping place for almost all liquid waste from towns, industries and agricultural activities. They are also the subject of development that may disrupt their balance. The challenge, for both France and the world, is to manage human activities and the conservation of water resources in a balanced way, in terms of both quantity and quality.

The state and impacts

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 08 Apr 2011


In metropolitan France, average annual rainfall for the past 60 years has been estimated at 487 billion m3. Of this volume, on average only 175 billion m3 of effective rainfall actually replenish continental water resources; 75 billion m3 run off at the surface and 100 billion m3 infiltrate into the groundwater. Taking into account exchanges with neighbouring countries, the total average annual balance for water resources amounts to 168 billion m3 for metropolitan France. The quantities of effective rainfall vary greatly from one year to the next and are not spread uniformly throughout the territory. 2005 was marked by a substantial deficit for most of the territory. In 2008 the situation in four regions, including the Paris basin, was a cause for concern.


 Total effective rainfall in 2008

Total effective rainfall in 2008

Source: Météo-France, 2008-2009; processing: SOeS.


Surface waters in France

Watercourses exceeding 1 km in length in metropolitan France, three quarters of which are small or very small, represent a total length of 525 000 km. Apart from the wetlands, standing water is made up of ponds and natural lakes as well as lake reservoirs. There are also brackish ponds which may or may not be directly linked with the sea. There are nearly 34 000 stretches of freshwater of which 535 have an area in excess of 50 ha. Five hundred and forty stretches are reservoirs created by large dams – those more than 20 m high and where the volume of the reservoir exceeds 15 million m3.


Quality of the watercourses


Quality is evaluated by measuring several physico-chemical parameters, in particular by looking for and quantifying substances that, above a concentration threshold, are toxic to humans or ecosystems.

In the watercourses biochemical oxygen demand (BOD), an indicator of the quantity of biodegradable organic substances in the water, has been falling by 30 % since 1998, the result of increased performance of wastewater treatment plants. Ammonium, another characteristic indicator of the efficiency of treatment, also shows a downward trend, but is influenced by the low rainfall of 2003 and 2005 which resulted in poor dilution. Similarly, orthophosphates fell by almost 40 % over that period.

The trend is less pronounced for nitrates, where the index is, for the most part, stable or even a slight upward trend, with fluctuations as a result of climatic conditions. The trend for nitrates, which is very closely linked to weather conditions, shows a greater contrast geographically. The highest concentrations are observed in the north-east quarter of the country. The use of nitrogenous fertilisers has fallen since 2001 but nevertheless the drought years created leached nitrogenous surpluses in the following years.


volume des precipitations


In 2007, pesticides were detected and quantified at least once at 91 % of the measurement points. The concentrations measured were sometimes very low and in these cases had little effect on the quality of the water. This nevertheless reflects a considerable spread of pesticides and their generalised presence in aquatic environments.

Eighty-two percent of the stations selected showed, on average, a total pesticides concentration of less than 0.5 μg/l in 2007, and at 164 of these, 9 %, no quantity at all was recorded during the year. These stations are located mainly in the mountain regions of Auvergne, Alps, and Pyrenees which are little affected by agricultural pressures. The stations with an average of more than 0.5 μg/l are in the regions noted for intensive agricultural: Midi-Pyrénées, the Paris basin, the Rhône valley and northern.

The pesticides most often found are herbicides of the triazine family – atrazine and its metabolites, urea substitutes – diuron, isoproturon, or others such as glyphosate and its derivative AMPA. In spite of having been banned since 2004, metolachlor was still found in high amounts at three stations in Lot-et-Garonne and the Gers in 2007.


Annual average total concentration of pesticides in watercourses in 2007

Annual average total concentration of pesticides in watercourses in 2007



Groundwater is generally stored in aquifers in geological formations such as sandstone and limestone. France has about 200 major aquifers of which 175 are unconfined and 25 confined. There are numerous small aquifers spread throughout the rest of the country (approximately 6 300).


Quality of groundwater

Quality of groundwater

Source: Agences de l’Eau (Water Agencies) - Ministère chargé de la Santé (Ministry of Health) – BRGM (French geosciences institution), Ades database (of groundwater resources) combined networks. Processing: SOeS, 2009.


A slow deterioration of groundwater in relation to nitrates seems to have been continuing at the national level since the 1960s. While some improvements have been observed locally, the general deterioration has continued over the past ten years,  although the drought years from 2003 to 2005 recorded levels that were markedly better in selected areas mainly as a result of a shortage of rainfall generating less runoff and therefore less infiltration to the groundwater. In the past ten years, there have been fewer water-points with levels below 10 mg/l and an increase in water-points with nitrate concentrations exceeding 50 mg/l.

In 2007, 666 groundwater stations – bores, wells, etc. – 43 of a total of 1 534, were free of pesticides. These were in deep groundwater layers, well protected from surface pollution, or located in mountain ranges which have no major aquifers, such as Brittany, the Massif Central, the Alps and the Pyrenees, and which tend to be given over to livestock farming.

The stations recording the highest levels of pesticides are located in the large sedimentary basins – chalky, limestone, sandstone aquifers  – of the Paris basin and the surrounding region, the Aquitaine basin and the Rhône valley. Only 4 % of the stations show levels higher than the threshold value of 0.5 µg/l, compared with 17 % in the watercourses. Three stations – just 0.2 % of the total – exceed the threshold of 5 µg/l, above which purification of the water is no longer possible.

Compared with watercourses, groundwater layers are characterised by two phenomena linked with their slower rate of renewal: the greater persistence of banned compounds, and the predominance of their metabolites.



The key drivers and pressures

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 08 Apr 2011

Abstraction of water

Water for human activities is abstracted from surface waters and from groundwater. In 2007 31.6 billion m3 of water were abstracted in metropolitan France for public distribution of drinking water, industry, irrigation and energy – nuclear and thermal power stations.

The distribution of the volumes abstracted varies greatly according to use. Energy production abstracts by far the largest quantities: in 2007, 59 % of the water abstracted was used to cool electricity generating plants. However, most of this, an estimated 93 %, is returned to the watercourses after use. 

Irrigation accounts for only 12 % of the total volume, but returns only a very small part of it. Its impact is even greater than this figure suggests since abstraction is mostly from surface waters during periods when they are at their lowest.

Eighteen percent of the volume abstracted is for drinking water, and the industrial sector uses relatively small quantities, 10 % of total abstraction.

Distribution of abstracted volumes, by use in 2007 in metropolitan France

Distribution of abstracted volumes, by use in 2007 in metropolitan France

In billion m3

Note: The data on abstraction for drinking water from the Seine Normandy basin have not been updated following problems regarding the raw data. Therefore, the values for 2006 have been carried over for this basin.  Source: Agences de l'eau - SOeS, 2010.


In 2007 about 82 % of total abstraction was from surface waters – rivers, canals, lakes, and reservoirs. However, this varies greatly according to usage and geographical factors.


Groundwater is the main source of drinking water – nearly 63 % – because of the generally better quality of this type of resource. Virtually all the water, 99.9 %, used for cooling electricity generating plants comes from rivers. Nearly 80 % of abstraction for irrigation, and 59 % for use by the industrial sector, is from surface waters.

Origin of abstracted water resources, by use in 2007, in metropolitan France

In millions of m3 and %


Drinking water




All uses

Surface waters

2 161

37 %

1 823

59 %

3 136

80 %

18 785

99.9 %

25 905

82 %


3 614

63 %

1 285

41 %


20 %


0.1 %

5 710

18 %


5 775


3 108


3 923


18 810


31 615


Note: Metropolitan France: the volumes have been estimated from the declarations made by the users to the Water Agencies for all uses, including irrigation. The declared volume for irrigation is probably underestimated. The data on abstraction for drinking water from the Seine Normandy basin have not been updated following problems regarding the raw data. Therefore, the values for 2006 have been carried over. In 2007 the surface water / groundwater distribution for this basin was estimated for irrigation on the basis of previous data. Source: Agences de l'eau - SOeS, 2010.


The total volume abstracted has remained relatively stable since the beginning of the 1990s. Nevertheless, the trends vary according to the uses. After a steady increase from the 1950s up to the middle of the 1980s, abstractions for drinking water seem to have stabilised, apart from 2003, which was an exceptional year because of the severity of the heat wave . The volume abstracted in 2007 was similar to that in 2006.

Geographical distribution of water abstractions

Trends in water abstraction by use (in million m3)

Geographical distribution of water abstractions

Source: Agences de l'eau - ministère chargé de l'environnement (Ministry of the Environment) (Direction de l'Eau (Water Directorate)) – SoeS; note regarding methodology.


Geographical distribution of water abstractions

The volumes of water abstracted vary greatly according to uses and regions. Each year about 100 m3 per inhabitant are abstracted for drinking water, more in the regions with the highest populations and high tourist potential – Ile-de-France, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur and Rhône-Alpes.

Similarly, abstraction for the industrial sector in the east, north, the Rhône valley or even the south-west regions is more than in the less industrialised regions such as the Auvergne or Limousin.

Geographical distribution of water abstractions

The 2020 outlook

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

Emerging substances and risks in water

The Water Framework Directive classifies 41 hazardous and/or priority substances, but others, which are less well-known, are establishing themselves as emerging pollutants: residues of pharmaceuticals, personal care products including cosmetics, products resulting from the decomposition of detergents or disinfectants, plasticizers, etc. Current wastewater treatment cannot completely eliminate these substances which are found as traces in watercourses, estuaries and, to a lesser extent, in unconfined groundwater in concentrations in the ng/l to µg/l concentration range. They are not currently subject to regulation or any obligation regarding monitoring. Parallel with this, recent studies have shown an emerging risk from a family of products classed as endocrine disruptors, the role of which in the feminisation of fish, frogs, molluscs and gastropods has now been proven.

The risks are linked mainly to the capacity of certain pollutants to have carcinogenic potential, endocrine disruption or other health effects even at very low concentrations, their toxicity in combination with other substances, their transfer to ecosystems, their persistence in natural environments, their bioaccumulation, and their capacity to create resistance, for example, to antibiotics. Recognition of this new problem requires improvement of systems for treating water or the setting up of a monitoring system.

Existing and planned responses

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 08 Apr 2011

Monitoring the quality of aquatic environments:


In 2007, the networks for monitoring the quality of aquatic environments were brought into line with the requirements of the Water Framework Directive in terms of surveillance and operational monitoring. As part of the regulatory framework, resources for drinking water are also subject to monitoring of their suitability by the water distributors and the departments of the Ministry of Health.

Historically, surveillance was initially for macro-pollutants – organic, nitrogenous and phosphorous pollution. Monitoring of pesticides, and more generally of micro-pollutants, really took off at the beginning of the 1990s and has since continued to advance particularly as a result of the Water Framework Directive and the obligation to monitor hazardous and priority substances.

Trend in the number of measurement points for the quality of watercourses


Trend in the number of measurement points for the quality of watercourses, by substance investigated in metropolitan France. Source: Agences de l’eau - Conseils généraux (General Councils) – Diren (Regional Environmental Directorate) – Draf (Regional Directorate for Agriculture and Forestry), SRPV (Regional Plant Protection Department) - Processing SOeS.


Pesticides: increased monitoring


Monitoring requirements, which have increased since the beginning of the 1990s, have led to a growth in the number of measurement points and the number of substances investigated.


Pesticides: increased monitoring

Number of measurement points for pesticides in watercourses

Source: Agences de l’eau - Conseils généraux – Diren – Draf, SRPV - Processing SOeS (Metropolitan France + Overseas Departments).


Number of measurement points for pesticides in groundwater


Source: Agences de l’eau - Conseils généraux – Diren – Draf, SRPV - Processing SOeS (Metropolitan France + Overseas Departments)


The number of compounds investigated at least once in all the samples and at all measurement points each year has increased in line with the number of measurement points. The number for watercourses increased from 217 in 1997 to 453 in 2007, reflecting the very large number of substances – nearly 400 – authorised in agriculture which are likely to be present in surface waters. It is also necessary to add substances which have been withdrawn from the market but may still be present in the environment, as well as the compounds resulting from the decomposition of the substances used.

Compounds monitored in groundwater also increased sharply from 186 in 1997 to 447 in 2006, before falling back to 160 in 2007. This fall is explained by the fact that some substances were not found in groundwater.

However, these substances are not monitored at all measurement points because, although some substances are used very widely, others are associated with crop types found only in certain areas. Systematic investigation of all of the compounds cannot be justified, therefore, and so the figures mask a very wide variety of situations.


Management of drought

The problems of managing drought arise as much in the short term, in the case of crisis situations, as in the long term in the context of climate change. The severity of the drought in 2003 led to an updating of the regulatory tools, in particular to enable temporary restrictions on uses of water that are the subject of regular monitoring.


Trend in the number of departments affected by water restrictions during the summer in metropolitan France

Trend in the number of departments affected by water restrictions during the summer in metropolitan France

Notes: Metropolitan France; number of departments affected by at least one prefectural order imposing restrictions on uses of water during the months indicated. Source: Ministry of Ecology, Energy, Sustainable Development and the Sea (Direction de l'eau et de la biodiversité - water and biodiversity directorate) - Eaufrance, April 2010.

However, these restrictive measures are more suitable for managing exceptional climatic episodes than long-term management in the context of climate change. Nor are they suited to management of quantity as defined by the Water Framework Directive. Consequently, other tools have been set up locally to manage low water levels, and a national plan for the management of water scarcity was launched at the end of 2005. Further, the Water and Aquatic Environments Act (LEMA) of 30 December 2006 modifies the management of water resources. As a result of various measures – collective organisation of abstractions through a single agency for irrigation in areas of shortage, etc. – it should be possible to restore the balance between abstraction and environmental capacity by 2011.


Implementation of the Water Framework Directive and local water policy




In connection with implementation of the Water Framework Directive, at the end of 2004 an initial inventory was drawn up by the Water Agencies and was submitted in 2005, in accordance with Article 5 of the European Water Framework Directive. This inventory was revised at the end of 2009 when the Water Development and Management Master Plan (SDAGE) was revised.

In each river basin district, the first characterisation of surface water bodies and bodies of groundwater was re-evaluated, using the initial data from the monitoring programme which started in 2007, supplemented where necessary by earlier data.

The status of a surface water body is assessed in terms of:

·          ecological status: according to five classes from high to bad;

·          chemical status: according to three classes, good, bad or undetermined.

Good ecological status takes into account the quality of all the ecological building blocks: water, fauna, flora and habitat. A confidence level is attached to the assessment of the ecological status as the data cannot be sufficient at this stage.

The chemical status is assessed on the basis of the measured concentrations of some 40 substances – metals, pesticides, etc. – which must not exceed the environmental quality standards in force. 

SOeS, on the basis of the available facts, end April 2010.

Source: Agences de l'Eau – Directions régionales de l’environnement (DOM) (Regional Environmental Directorates, Overseas Departments) – Onema (French National Agency for Water and Aquatic Environments) – Ministry of Ecology, Energy, Sustainable Development and the Sea, 2010. Processing: SOeS, on the basis of the available facts, end April 2010.

Access to all the results



Public consultation in 2008:

Under the Water Framework Directive, public consultations are mandatory for water management through SDAGE. An initial consultation took place in 2005 and a further round in each of the six basins in mainland France between 15 April and 15 October 2008. This was designed to gather public opinion regarding the preliminary draft of SDAGE and its associated programme of measures for 2010-2015. As part of this, each citizen was asked to give his or her opinion by answering a questionnaire delivered to 28 million households in mainland France). The master plans have to take into account, as far as possible, the opinions expressed during these consultations and the objectives laid down in 2008 by the Grenelle Environment Forum: two-thirds of the surface water bodies to achieve good status by 2015, 90 % by 2021.




Bibliographical trails:

·         Agences de l’Eau, 2007. ‘Contrat de rivières et risques d’inondations’. January 2007, 39 p. (Can be downloaded from:

·         Ifen (French Environmental Institute) 2007. ‘La facture d'eau domestique en 2004 - 177 euros par personne et par an’, 4 pages from Ifen, n°117.

·         Ifen, 2007. ‘Les services publics de l'eau en 2004 - Volet eau potable’. Ifen, Orléans. 30 p. (series Les dossiers de l'Ifen, 7).

·         Ifen, 2008. ‘Les services publics de l'assainissement en 2004’. Ifen, Orléans. 26 p. (series Les dossiers de l'Ifen, 10).

·         Ifen, Ministry of Ecology and Sustainable Development and Planning, December 2007. ‘Les pesticides dans les eaux - Données 2005’. Orléans, Ifen, 36 p.

·         Ministry of Ecology and Sustainable Development (Water Directorate), Agences de l’Eau, Diren, 2003. ‘Le suivi des schémas directeurs d'aménagement et de gestion des eaux’. 8 p. (Can be downloaded from:

·         Ministry of Ecology and Sustainable Development, Agences de l’Eau, Conseil supérieur de la pêche (Fisheries Board) 2003. ‘Portée juridique et rédaction des Sage, petit guide pratique’. September 2003, 91 p. (Can be downloaded from:

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