Activists and farmers are gearing up for a fight over France’s water resources. Activists are targeting farmers who rely on basins of pumped groundwater to irrigate their crops, blaming them for water shortages in France. Michele Barbero reports in Foreign Policy:
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.
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