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After the drought, the water conflict

The average volume of water extracted in France for irrigated crops (1,700 m3/hectare and per year) is “far less than the 4,800 m3/ha/year recorded in Spain and in Italy, or the average recorded in the EU (4 000 m3).”

In the fields, the land is dry and dusty and the seeds are finding it difficult to germinate. After the summer drought, many farmers wanted to be able to irrigate their pastures and crops, but they find themselves being blocked by the environmental associations. The water war has begun.

“In our region, the reservoirs used for storing water during the winter, for use in the summer, were built 13 years ago but they could only be used for one year because, each year, we had to face legal action from the local associations”, Luc Servant, president of the Chamber of Agriculture in Charente-Maritime explained to AFP.
“The conflicts relating to the issue of water usage in France are becoming more and more serious”, confirmed Laurent Pinatel, spokesman for a leading Farmers’ Union (syndicat Confédération paysanne), and “in certain regions, there is not enough water for everyone”. In the Charente region, this summer, the reservoirs were “full of water” and yet “unusable”, after the water bans obtained in the courts by the associations, confided Luc Servant. And not so far away, the crops were roasting under the burning sun.
“Today, there is not a single water retention pond or reservoir project in France that is not being legally challenged by local groups, it’s a battle that we hear relatively little about, because it’s all happening in the courts of the regions, but it is a battle”, continued Arnaud Gauffier, the person in charge of agricultural matters for the environmental organisation WWF France.
The Ministry of Agriculture has just published figures on the effects of the drought: French maize (corn) production fell by 12.6% in 2018, that of wheat by 5.5% and that of sunflowers by 22.5%. This has had a serious effect on the farmers’ already difficult financial situation.

The National Federation of Farmer’s Unions is demanding ”an active and ambitious water storage policy.” A number of its members are leading a campaign on social media to explain the increasing need for water storage reservoirs to be filled in the winter so as to irrigate in the summer. The surplus of water in the winter has filled the reservoir and allowed us to irrigate during dry periods. Is this not a reasonable way of managing water.
In France, the surface area under irrigation (1.6 million hectares) represents less than 6% of agricultural land, according to Claude Cochonneau, who presides over the association of chambers of agriculture. With the situations being very different in each region, the Adour-Garonne irrigation basin is the most tense.
“I am fortunate to have the water on my property; I have built “hillside reservoirs”, which are filled in the winter and used in the summer”, explained Raymond Girardi, who produces cereals and fruits in the Lot-et-Garonne region, and who is vice-president of the Modef Farmer’s Union. “For us, the word irrigation appears to be a dirty word; you can’t even mention it without the risk of being hanged in public”, joked Jean-Guillaume, in response.

Anxious to save on the use of a precious resource and preserve the biodiversity of the fragile wet zones, the associations allege that the maize (corn) crop, in particular, is being used more for feeding cattle, producing biofuels and methane gas than providing food for human beings. “From the flowering stage in June, we are shocked to see all this water being sprayed with systems that create so much evaporation while the rivers run dry”, AFP was told, regretfully, by Sylvain Angerand, from Friends of the Earth. Arnaud Gauffier questions the attitude of the State: in Charente-Maritime, the investigating commissioner had issued an unfavourable report for a project to construct 21 water retention reservoirs and the Prefect disregarded it altogether this summer. “If we carry on increasing the number of reservoirs we will have more and more disputes over their usage”, he predicted.



A report issued by the General Council for Food and Agriculture (CGAAER) in June 2017, tries to take the heat out of the debate, stating that France “very fortunately has an abundant supply of water” and that
“irrigation in the country consumes very little water and the systems have become more and more efficient”. According to this report, the average volume of water withdrawn in France for irrigated crops (1,700 m3/hectare and per year) is “far less than the 4,800 m3/ha/year recorded in Spain and in Italy, or the average recorded in the EU (4,000 m3)”.
Faced with the risk of aridification in the south and the “Mediterraneanizing” of the intermediate regions between Charentes and Alsace, the report pleads for an easing of the government policies relating to irrigation. Following the second session of the Water Conference, launched by the government, which took place this autumn, the government is going to authorise the setting up, between 2019 and 2022, of some sixty water storage reservoirs in France for irrigation usage.
“The idea that the land should be adapted in order to cope with the climate change is back in force, while, at the same time, it may be better to adapt agricultural production, change the main crops in certain places, give up growing maize (corn) and grow crops that consume less water”, argues Arnaud Gauffier from the WWF. That is easier said than done when entire production networks (crushing, oil-mills, starch production, ethanol) are built around maize (corn). The WWF and the Smallholders’ Confederation are agreed at least on the need to change production: less maize (corn), more market gardening, fruit trees and fodder, with assistance for the farmers via the European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). secheresse-la-guerre-de-l-eau-enquete-2179-141190.html




The French government intends to authorise the establishment of “around sixty” reservoirs for in France between 2019 and 2022, stated the Minister of Agriculture, Didier Guillaume, on Thursday 29th August 2019.
“We are not just going to watch the rain fall from the sky for six months and then spend the other six months of the year looking for water,” argued Didier Guillaume on CNews this morning. “It is all about recovering the rainwater, storing it in hillside reservoirs […] so as to be able to release it back into the soil during a drought”.


The legal actions taken by the associations

Although these projects are regularly challenged through the administrative courts by the environ - mental protection associations, the Minister reminded us that, with the Ministry of Ecological Transition, he has “obtained a directive endorsed by the Prime Minister” to “once again build water reservoirs”. The document, signed in June during the Water Conference, but never actually publicised until now, defines the objective of achieving a target of 60 reservoirs between now and 2022” and “appraisals for these projects will commence in 2019”, explained the cabinet Minister of Agriculture in the morning.


Eighteen projects challenged

Thirteen “substitution reservoir” projects in the department of Deux-Sèvres, two in Charente- Maritime and one in Vienne, in particular, are being challenged by environmental activists. They are denouncing a system that mainly pumps groundwater from the aquifer and sustains a form of agriculture considered to be “intensive”. The reservoirs are “to built on the project areas that are in dispute” with the environmentalists, confirmed Didier Guillaume, calling for “pragmatism”. “If we want to continue with agriculture in France, and not resort to importing [agricultural products, Editor’s Note], which we certainly do not want, then French agriculture must be resilient”, he stressed.