French Police Guard Water as Seasonal Drought Intensifies

MAUZÉ-SUR-LE-MIGNON, France — Wearing bulletproof vests and carrying firearms, gendarmes suddenly appear amid farm fields misted by morning rain. They are standing behind two fences equipped with security cameras and overhead lights, looking like prison guards. But there is no prison for miles.

Instead, they guard a large pit intended to serve as a gigantic reservoir. Welcome to the front line of the water wars in France.

World leaders met for two weeks at the COP27 climate conference in Egypt, discussing ways to mitigate the effects of climate change and the conflicts it generates. But while competition for water scarcity is most associated with the arid regions of the Middle East and Africa, Europe is not immune.

After a scorching summer that climatologists called a harrowing postcard from the future, with record heatwaves, wildfires and river-drying droughts, France is now embroiled in an escalating battle over who should have priority to use its water. and how.

The French government has embarked on a plan to build large reservoirs across the country to serve farmers during the increasingly arid spring and summer months.

But what the government calls an adaptation, opponents consider an aberration, which they see as the privatization of water to benefit a few outdated industrial farmers.

The fighting between the two sides has become increasingly nasty, perhaps a sign of the water wars that are set to worsen around the world as temperatures rise.

Thousands of activists opposing the latest dam under construction, in the western Nouvelle-Aquitaine region, recently clashed with some 1,600 military police amid fields of rapeseed and dry wheat remains.

That normally picturesque countryside was transformed into a scene from a dystopian novel: policemen in riot gear, armored trucks firing tear gas canisters, smoke billowing, and helicopters roaring overhead.

protesters after paraded with two lengths of water pipes they had dug up and dismantled so that they could not later feed the reservoir, the latest sabotage of many, which they consider civil disobedience.

Gérald Darmanin, France’s interior minister, described the scene as “eco-terrorism.”

“They are the ones who are eco-terrorists,” replied Jean-Jacques Guillet, a former mayor of three towns, as he watched excavators scratch red dirt at the site days later. “They are terrorizing the environment.”

“They sent 1,600 gendarmes to protect a hole full of pebbles,” he added, looking at four armed military policemen standing nearby.

There are hundreds of thousands of water reservoirs across France that have been used by farmers for generations, causing little controversy. For environmentalists, what differentiates the newer ones is their size and the origin of the water they collect.

The last one under construction will cover 16 hectares (almost 40 acres) and will house the equivalent of 288 Olympic-sized swimming pools filled with groundwater, pumped through pipes. Opponents like Mr. Guillet call them “mega-basins.”

In theory, the reservoirs absorb water during the wet winter months and retain it for farmers to use during the critical spring and summer growing seasons. In this way, they will ensure the country’s food production and also reduce the pressure on aquifers during the increasing summer droughts.

There is no official count of how many mega dams there are, but activists estimate there are around 50, clustered in the west of the country. The scene of the latest battle is in the Deux-Sèvres region, where plans to build 16 were unveiled in 2017. To sweeten the deal, the newly formed water cooperative representing some 230 farmers later signed an agreement to green their practices by reducing their use of pesticides, building hedges and enhancing biodiversity on their land.

The cooperative, called Water Co-op 79, sees the planned mega-watersheds as a lifeline. “The idea is to ensure water to maintain agriculture in the territory,” says François Petorin, a cereal farmer who grows wheat, rapeseed, sunflower and a little corn on 210 hectares. “We know that two years out of 10, there is a risk that we will not fill the reservoirs to 100 percent. But today, 10 out of 10 years, we run the risk of not being able to irrigate our fields.”

That is the definition of privatizing water, critics say. Worse still, they add, it is being done with public funds: seventy percent of the budget of 60 million euros (about 62 million dollars) to build the Deux-Sèvres reservoirs is being covered by the French government.

Instead of forcing farmers to find less water-intensive ways of farming, the dams will actually increase their water use greatly to irrigate cornfields, opponents argue.

“Our president has decided that this is the best way to combat climate change: to create as many watersheds as possible at the national level,” said Mr. Guillet, a former mayor. “It’s not just water hoarding by a minority, financed with our own money, but it’s wasted,” he added, pointing to reports of evaporation from reservoirs.

An environmental association successfully sued many of the dams in a neighboring region, where after more than a decade of appeals, judges declared them illegal. There are empty open spaces. The group plans to go back to court to force the local government to return the land to its original state or an approximation.

“It is very, very, very difficult to go back even when they are banned,” said Patrick Picaud, vice president of the environmental organization. Nature Environment 17which has also taken the Deux-Sèvres plan to court, which has resulted in a reduction in the number of authorized reservoirs, as well as the amount of water they can contain.

“They are a disaster, for the environment, for public funds and even for agriculture,” Picaud said. “There has to be a law that prohibits construction before the judicial process is finished.”

To complicate the problem, most of France’s large dams are being built near the country’s second-largest wetland, the Marais Poitevin, a vast, canal-laced swamp that locals affectionately call “Green Venice.”

The French geological service published a study in June that concluded that the project would have a “limited impact” on aquifer levels in the winter, and in the spring and summer, it could even increase levels in watersheds.

But hydroclimatists like Florence Habets point that the survey used old data and did not take into account the multi-year droughts announced by climate change. And only now is the official study being carried out on how much water can be extracted from the rivers and aquifers of the Deux-Sèvres region, without negatively affecting the environment.

“Groundwater is the tap of the wetland,” says Julien Le Guet, using a traditional wooden pole called pigouille to row a boat through the narrow canals of the Marais Poitevin. “Instead of the groundwater replenishing the swamp, the swamp will replenish the groundwater.”

Mr. Le Guet has been a boat guide here for 14 years. He speaks lyrically about the winter rains, when the trees grow just out of the rising lake, and despairingly about the recent drops in water levels. His love for the place prompted him to create a major opposition group called Bassines No Merci — Reservoirs, No Thanks.

But the government’s response has been to charge forward.

Days after the last protest, a neighboring region announced that it would build 30 large dams.

“That’s why we have to keep fighting this battle,” said Le Guet, 45. “So that the national plan to build basins does not advance.”

Schisms have already formed between the farmers themselves, the intended beneficiaries of the watersheds. Smaller vegetable growers, who use comparatively little water, say they should not have to shoulder the burden of agribusiness farms, 30 of which absorb a third of the area’s total irrigation allocation.

“Why should I pay for research when I will never get water from it?” said Olivier Drouineau, an organic farmer who grows vegetables on 4.5 hectares. “It only benefits the biggest farms.”

A recent survey of cooperative farmers revealed that only 10 percent had reduced their use of pesticides. As a result, a handful of environmental groups that initially supported the project have denounced it as an “irrigation development program.”

Walking through a strip of flowering plants he grows to feed bees, Mr Petorin, the grain farmer, said it was too early to expect a reduction in pesticides or other changes, after years of delays caused by protests and legal challenges. “This is a reciprocal agreement,” he said.

Construction of another reservoir, about half a mile from his farm, is scheduled to begin in March. Petorin is concerned that protests and costly acts of sabotage will continue.

After so many years of consultations and discussions, the idea of ​​needing gendarmes to protect the water wells seemed “not normal,” he said, “because there are people who want to break everything.”

Mr. Le Guet said that his group was already planning their next protest.

“They can put a team of police officers against the 50,” he said.

tom nuvian contributed research from Paris.