France’s Water War Has No End in Sight

Via Foreign Policy, a report on how – as France’s water reserves run low – tensions are running high:

As France grapples with soaring temperatures and ever more ruinous droughts, a full-blown water war is unfolding in the country, with heavy clashes, injuries, and arrests.

Tensions are running high over the use of giant artificial reservoirs for irrigation, which some farmers rely on to cope with water scarcity but which critics say are making the problem worse, accelerating the depletion of limited groundwater resources for the benefit of only a handful of big producers.

It’s one of many conflicts over water access breaking out with growing frequency all over the world, as climate change dries soils, increases temperatures and makes crops thirstier, and reduces the annual snowpacks that traditionally replenished freshwater flows. Water diversion in China is stoking regional ire. In Central Asia, access to scarce water resources is exacerbating cross-border tensions. Climate change and upstream dams, as well as poor water management, are drying out Iraq and Iran. Egypt and Ethiopia have been at odds for years over an upstream Nile River dam that threatens downstream countries. Western U.S. states are bickering over the dwindling resources of the once-mighty Colorado River, while in Germany and Chile, contentious access to water is fueling domestic strife.

“Water is a common good. No one can claim it as their own,” said Julien Le Guet, a spokesperson for Bassines Non Merci (Basins No Thanks), an activist group. This month, Le Guet and several other defendants went on trial over various unauthorized demonstrations against the construction of a new mega-reservoir in Sainte-Soline, in western France.

A rally held in March, in particular, turned into a violent confrontation with the police that left 47 officers and 200 demonstrators wounded. Some local farmers also denounced damage to their crops and the pipes linking their fields to the new basin. Fresh protests took place at another construction site nearby and in Paris over the last few weeks, with more actions planned in the near future.

Estimates vary between 100 and several hundred retention basins in France, giant plastic-lined craters spanning 20 acres on average that are filled by pumping groundwater in winter for use during the scalding summer months. And their number, whatever it is, is growing. The project in the Deux-Sèvres region (which includes Sainte-Soline), led by a private cooperative of local farmers, entails the construction of 16 new reservoirs that would store more than 6 million cubic meters of water—the equivalent of 1,600 Olympic swimming pools. Another 30 reservoirs are due to be built in the nearby Vienne region.

Supporters say that as the weather gets hotter and drier—2023 had the hottest summer on record globally—the basins are an indispensable life insurance for farmers and a way to reduce the pressure on water resources when they are at their lowest. France has recently been experiencing its worst droughts ever; in July, more than two-thirds of its natural groundwater reserves were below normal levels.

“Irrigating without basins means to continue pumping groundwater, even when there’s less of it,” said Laurent Devaux of Coordination Rurale, a farmers’ union.

The problem, critics say, is that the reservoirs are siphoning precious groundwater for the benefit of a small minority. Just 7 percent of French farmland is equipped with irrigation canals, and only some of the irrigated farms around the reservoirs are actually connected to them. The basin in Sainte-Soline will be directly linked to barely 12 farms out of a total of 185 in the area. According to Le Guet, of all the irrigated farms in the region concerned by the Deux-Sèvres project, the ones that will be connected to the new basins use twice as much water on average as the others.

“This is not just a conflict between certain farmers and environmentalist groups,” said Laurence Marandola, a spokesperson for the Confédération Paysanne farmers’ union, which opposes the basins. “All of us farmers need water,” she said.

And there is less and less of it. Due to the combined effects of global warming and over-pumping, Europe’s groundwater resources have been steadily declining in recent decades, with a yearly loss of some 84 gigatons of water (roughly the equivalent of Lake Ontario) since the turn of the century—just like what’s happening elsewhere in the world, from much of the U.S. to the Middle East.

Critics, including conservationists, small farmers, and scientists, slam the reservoirs as a particularly wasteful method of storing water. Keeping it out in the open, rather than underground, means that some of it evaporates and the remaining part heats up, filling with toxic bacteria, said Christian Amblard, an honorary research director at France’s National Center for Scientific Research. “You’ve got, at the same time, a loss of quantity and quality. It makes no sense,” he said.

Finally, these reservoirs are accused of perpetuating what critics call an unsustainable agricultural model that consumes too much water and accelerates global warming. More than 60 percent of Europe’s arable land is used to feed livestock—which, globally, is responsible for over 30 percent of the world’s emissions of methane—a powerful greenhouse gas. The crops that are grown for animal feed include corn, which occupies one-third of all irrigated land in France and demands lots of water in the summer—hence the need for solutions such as the reservoirs.

“The mega-basins are delaying a transition to a responsible, resilient, and water-efficient agriculture,” Amblard said.

That transition would entail, among other things, working to make soils more capable of retaining water and pivoting away from meat and dairy production, according to experts. With up to 15 billion euros in public aid doled out to the French agriculture sector every year, the necessary financial resources shouldn’t be hard to find, Amblard said. “The agricultural sector is one of the few where the ecological transition can be carried out without leaving anyone by the wayside,” he said.

So far, though, successive French governments have shown little appetite for that, handsomely subsidizing the reservoirs instead—which current French Agriculture Minister Marc Fesneau praised as “virtuous.” Taxpayers will foot 70 percent of the 76-million-euro bill for the ones planned in the Deux-Sèvres. If farmers have an outsized political and financial influence in the European Union as a whole, in France they are a political power unto themselves.

French authorities have also been cracking down hard on the anti-basins movement. Police have come under heavy criticism for their handling of the Sainte-Soline protest, with the Human Rights League, a French nongovernmental organization, denouncing the indiscriminate firing of rubber bullets and the hindering of first-aid workers by the security forces in a bid to “prevent access to the basin’s site, whatever the human cost.”

French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin has described some of those taking part in the protests as “eco-terrorists” and has taken steps to dissolve Les Soulèvements de la Terre (Earth’s Uprisings), a vocal, and sometimes violent, environmental group.

“We are increasingly the target of legal actions, investigations, and surveillance,” Le Guet said. “Over the last year, court summons have been raining down,” he said, adding that the movement will continue to hamper new basin construction, nonetheless.

The debate looming in France is a familiar one from the American West to the headwaters of the Nile. The basins “are being politicized and isolated from their context, with the farmers who back them being unfairly designated as villains,” Devaux said.

But “there simply isn’t enough water in the underground reserves to carry on like this, extracting these amounts of water for agriculture,” Marandola said. “And what is done with the water that’s taken should be decided in a democratic way, for every single drop.”

This entry was posted on Monday, September 25th, 2023 at 1:04 pm and is filed under France.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

Comments are closed.

© 2024 Water Politics LLC .  'Water Politics', 'Water. Politics. Life', and 'Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty World' are service marks of Water Politics LLC.