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ENVIRONMENT

Drought-hit Mont Blanc shuts shelters to dissuade hikers

Authorities in the French Alps said Friday they had closed down two popular mountain shelters used by Mont Blanc climbers because of potentially deadly drought-related rockfalls.

Drought-hit Mont Blanc shuts shelters to dissuade hikers
A picture taken on October 3, 2012, shows the "Refuge du Gouter" (3.835 meters high) on the way to the summit of Mont-Blanc. (Photo by JEAN-PIERRE CLATOT / AFP)

In a year marked by drought and heatwaves, rockfalls and gaping crevices have made access to the top of Mont Blanc, western Europe’s highest mountain, even more difficult and perilous.

The mayor’s office in the Mont Blanc village of Saint-Gervais, said climbers were in “mortal danger” from rocks and shards coming loose because of dry weather and dropping from a height.

“All day long, we still see climbers going on the mountain range, all the time, as if this was Disneyland or the Parc Asterix,” said Saint-Gervais mayor Jean-Marc Peillex, in reference to two popular theme parks near Paris.

Hikers had been advised since last month to stay away because of the danger, but “they just don’t give a damn,” he told AFP.

READ MORE: ‘To pay funeral costs’ – Why Mont Blanc mayor wants to charge climbers

The closure of the two mountain shelters — Gouter with 120 overnight spots and Tete Rousse with 74, as well as a base camp accommodating up to 50 people — was to “show clearly that there is no accommodation available”.

The authorities had warned for weeks that falling rocks were a danger, he said, adding that crossing the Gouter mountain corridor represented “a mortal danger”, he said.

Nevertheless, 79 people stayed at the Gouter shelter Thursday night, he said.

The shelters will remain shut until normal weather conditions return, the mayor said, probably not before early September.

Peillex had warned Wednesday that Saint-Gervais would require a deposit of €15,000 from each hiker, saying the sum represented the average cost of a rescue operation and a funeral.

He was, however, advised that French law offers no basis for such a move.

A lack of snow during the winter has laid bare vast areas of greyish glacier — yellowish where sand dust from the Sahara has accumulated — riven with fractures on the Mont Blanc.

The heat did the rest, causing the fragile snow bridges to melt that make it possible to cross the crevasses, as well as leading to landslides.

Following several heatwaves, France is in the grip of severe drought, blamed by scientists on climate change.

On Friday, 100 municipalities across the country were without drinking water, Environment Minister Christophe Bechu said.

Calling the drought “historic”, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne called a crisis meeting Friday to seek solutions.

Scientists say human-induced climate change is amplifying extreme weather — including the heatwaves, droughts and floods seen in several parts of the planet in recent weeks — and say these events will become more frequent and more intense.

The international community has agreed that climate change poses an existential threat to human systems and the natural world.

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FOOD & DRINK

French farmers warn of rising prices for fruit and vegetables after drought

French farmers have warned of rising food prices due to the summer's heatwave, drought and water restrictions.

French farmers warn of rising prices for fruit and vegetables after drought

Peaches, kiwis, apples, pears, carrots, cucumber, potatoes, turnips, leeks, tomatoes and lettuces are all set to rise dramatically in price after France’s worst drought in 60 years lead to severely reduced harvests.

“We have losses of between 30 and 35 percent on average,” said Jacques Rouchaussé, the president of the vegetable producers union, to the Parisien newspaper.

“Faced with a long drought, such as the one we are experiencing, we have little means to act.”

After a bad summer last year, farmers were expecting a good summer season since the winter frost finally spared the crops. But the lack of rainfall and water restrictions in some regions of France prevent growers from keeping fruit trees and root vegetables undamaged.

“Our products suffer from water stress and come out much smaller,” Françoise Rose, president of the fruit producers union, told the Parisien.

Although growers in the south know how to deal with very dry episodes, the real difficulties are in the regions used to having rain regularly, said Laurent Grandin, president of Interfel, the union for both fresh fruits and vegetables.

“Our sector is not in a catastrophic state as a whole, some areas are suffering more than others,” he added.

“We have to return to a seasonality, we cannot have tomatoes all year round. The consumer must also show frugality,” said Jacques Rouchaussé.

The consumer association Familles Rurales has already recorded an 11 percent increase over one year in fruit and vegetable prices. With smaller quantities and lower quality products, this trend is set to continue in September, including for processed products, such as tomato sauce or tinned soup.

Climate adaptation

With more violent episodes of frost or drought, producers need to adapt to a changing climate.

In the short term, producers are talking about the use of wastewater. They want the establishment of “retention basins”, made up in winter with rainwater in particular and usable in the event of drought in summer.

Another mitigating option to limit the impact of sweltering heat would be to invest in equipment to protect orchards and vegetable gardens such as so-called cold shelters.

“We must all act so that our professions and our cultures remain, said Jacques Rouchaussé. “Otherwise, we will grow tomatoes in the north and the south will only be able to grow rice!”

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