The French government has announced its intention “to scale up territorial water management projects”. Three Ministers and Secretaries of State - François de Rugy, Didier Guillaume and Emmanuelle Wargon, signed a directive on 7th May 2019, instructing the prefects to implement an approach that emerged from the second phase of the National Water Conference.
Heavier rain in the north, droughts in the south
Climate change has an impact on the water cycle. Increases in temperature have heated up the oceans, resulting in a rise in evaporation. Water that evaporates falls back down to earth in the form of rainfall, accelerating the water cycle and increasing the intensity of the rains, Therefore, the regions of heavy rainfall, such as northern Europe, can expect even more intense downpours, especially in the winter. On the other hand, the drier regions, such as the Mediterranean basin, will have even less rain because of the heat and atmospheric dynamics. Thus, in France, we face the risk of the south becoming more arid and the ‘Mediterranisation’ of the intermediate zones, including the Charente and Alsace regions.
Several factors have aggravated this situation. The increase in temperatures means that the snow melts faster in the spring, thus reducing the water resources available for the summer. There will be a considerable reduction in the flows of the rivers and streams during the summer period. The outcome: conflicts over the use of this resource in the regions of the south of France will intensify over the coming years.
However, it makes sense, whenever it is technically and economically feasible, to draw on the water resources when they are most plentiful (in winter) so as to store them and utilise them during the periods of drought for the different applications (drinking water, low water replenishment), without having to extract water from the rivers or aquifers.
These storage reservoirs could take the form of small lakes, which are artificially created and supplied in the winter by water pumped from the streams and rivers or extracted from the groundwater. Or they could be hillside dams, supplied by runoff or stormwaters.
The idea of creating water storage reservoirs is not new and they have faced many obstacles over the years.
For many years the farmers have been drawing water from the rivers and streams or extracting the resource from the groundwater to irrigate their fields, subject only to making an individual declaration to the relevant government agency. Water was available in abundance; people were unaware of global warming and the authorities granted unlimited approvals.
The water law of 2006 put an end to these unchecked water withdrawals. In the light of the increasing threat of real and long-lasting tensions arising over the resource, the public authorities decided to clarify the situation.
Firstly, an estimate was made, for each drainage basin, of the quantities that can be withdrawn from the rivers and streams without affecting the environment. Then a scheme was introduced for a continuous reduction in the number of withdrawal permits issued. Thus, the tools were in place, a reduction in withdrawals was programmed… but the reform stumbled on the controversial issue of water storage. The farmers and public authorities had come to a kind of tacit arrangement. The farmers had agreed to reduce the amount of water withdrawn but, in exchange, they expected the public authorities to authorise the creation of water storage reservoirs.
However, water storage reservoirs have received a bad press from an environmental point of view. They are accused of destabilising the biodiversity of the fragile wetland areas and, above all, according to the environmental associations, they would discourage the farmers from implementing the fundamental reforms required to tackle climate change.
In 2012, Delphine Batho, who was the Minister of Ecology at the time, put a moratorium on the creation of these structures, which were increasing in number, particularly in the South-west. This moratorium was lifted in 2015 by Ségolène Royal, providing that all the players concerned become part of the project in order to avoid dramatic protests taking place, such as those that surrounded the Sivens dam project in 2014. In reality, most of the projects have been frozen. The government agencies are not against these projects, rather, given the number of appeals filed, they want the applications granted to be irreproachable.
Nevertheless, in actual fact, farming practices are changing. In some regions, the number of hectares of irrigated maize (or corn) is decreasing, irrigation methods have become more precise and varieties are being used that consume less water. A report from the Supreme Council of Food and Agriculture (CGAAER) issued in June 2017 attempts to take the heat out of the debate, arguing that “very fortunately nature has provided France with plenty of water” and its irrigation systems, which have become a lot more efficient, do not consume a lot of water. According to the report, the average volume of water withdrawn in France for irrigated crops (1700 m3/ hectare per year) is considerably lower than the 4800 m3/ha/year recorded in Spain and in Italy, and less than the average consumed in the European Union (4000 m3). The agricultural sector has already reduced withdrawals by an average of 20% over the last 10 years in France.
The State supports the creation of water storage reservoirs
In September 2018, after a very dry summer, the Minister of Agriculture released data on the effects of the drought: French corn (maize) production fell by 12.8% in 2018, that of wheat by 5.5% and sunflower by 22.5%.
The FNSEA (National Federation of Farmers’ Unions) and many agricultural associations then demanded “an active water storage policy” and the State responded by deciding to scale up the territorial projects for the management of water.
In order to resolve the conflicts arising over the usage of the resource, the government now wishes to prioritize the territorial projects, a policy that engages all parties involved so as to reach a compromise. This approach should make it possible to:
- Undertake a diagnosis of the available resources and the current and future needs of the different uses.
- Implement water-saving activities for all forms of usage.
- Support the farmers in the process of agroecological transition.
- Induce the local authorities to make the soil surfaces less artificial in order to improve the infiltration of rainwater and consider nature-based solutions on a broader scale.
- Ensure that the resources are shared equitably and sustainably by prioritising health requirements, sanitation, public safety and the supply of drinking water for the population.
- Mobilise the resource during periods of high water, particularly via water storage or transfer facilities, whenever this is beneficial and sustainable.
- As far as financing is concerned, the Government maintains that it can raise funding from various sources of finance: “the users, regional local authorities, private financiers, EU funds, the water supply agencies”.
For the projects exclusively dedicated to agricultural irrigation, the portion to be funded by the water supply agency will be the part of the project corresponding to the volume of mains water substituted. The water supply agencies could potentially go beyond this share corresponding only to the volume substituted and finance multi-purpose projects under the terms and conditions stipulated in the Territorial Water Management Projects (PTGE), in accordance with the priorities of the River Basin Committees, in which the different users are represented.
It is a step forward, but this territorial approach is still met with some scepticism by the farmers, who complain about there being no coordination beyond local level, leading to a situation that lacks consistency and coherence. “In the same region, the Poitevin marshlands, we have succeeded in constructing reservoirs in Vendée but not in Deux-Sevres”, explained Joël Limouzin, President of the FNSEA, who demands «real impetus at national level on this issue».