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The Water Wars in France Eerily Resemble Scenes from The Ministry of the Future

Featured Image Source: Greenpeace

Above, English Translation of Twitter Caption in French (Google Translate):  “Mobilization against “mega-basins”. Who are these militants who want to settle on these agricultural lands?”


Like a lost chapter from  Kim Stanley Robinson’s now seminal near-future science fiction masterpiece, The Ministry of the Future, reporting from Info France 2, Collectif Bassines Non-Merci, Le Huffington Post, Midi Libre, France24,  The New York Times, and Le Monde details the recent clashes in the French western region of Nouvelle-Aquitaine (and other parts of the country) to water scarcity brought on by drought conditions in France.  At issue:  the future of water management and government policy and projects guided by the French government’s deployment of a controversial  “mega-basin” strategy.

August 2022

Collectif Bassines Non Merci (“The Basins, No Thanks Collective”):  Qu’est ce qu’une bassine en 1minute (“What is a basin in 1 minute”)

French captions in video (above):

Voici la bassine du Langon. Ella a un volume de 185,000 cubic meteres et represente la consommation annuelle de 15,754 personnel.

Action pour montrer le gigantisme de la bassine Le SOS fait 7m de hauteur.

Remplissage par pompage dans less nappes phreatiques.

Une bassine de Vendee pleine.

Vous admirerez le paysage autour…

Pour irriguer du mais…

Autize a sec.

La realite sur les projets de bassines:  Bassine pleine  Riviere a sec

English translation (Google Translate): 

“Here is the basin of the Langon. It has a volume of 185,000 cubic meters and represents the annual consumption of 15,754 people.

This action [by activists] shows the gigantism of the basin. The SOS [sign] is 7 meters high. 

[The basin] is filled by pumping in groundwater.

A full Vendee basin.

You will admire the landscape around…

To irrigate maize…

…The Autize river is dry.

The reality of basin projects:  Full basin.  Dry river

October 2022

Le Huffington Post:  Dans les Deux-Sèvres, la guerre de l’eau provoquée par les bassines (“In the Deux-Sèvres, the water war caused by the basins”)

Saint-Soline, Deux-Sèvres, France:  This fight should occupy environmental activists for a long time. While 16 basins should be built only in the department of Deux-Sèvres, thousands of demonstrators from all over France went near the construction site of one of them in Sainte-Soline (79), Saturday, October 29, to strongly mark their opposition to these huge water reserves intended for farmers.

During a confrontation lasting several hours between the demonstrators and the police, 61 gendarmes were injured, 22 of them seriously according to the Minister of the Interior, as were around thirty demonstrators, ten of whom were taken care of by the firefighters and three hospitalized, according to the collective “Bassines Non merci”.

As you can see in our video report at the top of the article, The HuffPost was on hand to follow the mobilization of environmental activists, who were joined during the day by several left-wing political figures, such as Yannick Jadot, Sandrine Rousseau or Philippe Poutu.

At our microphone, opponents of “mega-basins” denounce a project to “grab” the resource by a minority of farmers. Our camera was also able to capture the violent clashes that took place between demonstrators and the police. The day before this mobilization, Ludovic Vassaux, breeder and organic cereal farmer in favor of the project, testified to HuffPost about the importance of these water reservoirs for the survival of his farm in the face of repeated droughts.

The Sainte-Soline basin is the second in a project of 16 developed by a group of 400 farmers from Deux-Sèvres united in the Coop de l’eau, to “reduce water withdrawals by 70%” in this region. still subject to irrigation restrictions after an extraordinary summer drought. (1)

Midi Libre:  “Mega-basins”: what are these huge water reservoirs and why are they contested?

The demonstration caused a stir…against the project to build 16 basins in Sainte-Soline in the Deux-Sèvres…More than 5,000 demonstrators tried to block the construction of a large water reserve consisting of 16 basins in Sainte-Soline in the Deux-Sèvres. But why are opponents of the project against the construction of these reservoirs for farmers?

These mega-basins of an area of several hectares (several football fields) are artificial basins and plasticized to be waterproof. To contain a total of the equivalent of nearly300 Olympic swimming pools.

These 16 reservoirs are to be used by a group of 400 farmers gathered in the Water Coop so that they can continue to irrigate their farms in times of drought, to “reduce water withdrawals by 70% in summer.”

The Sainte-Soline basins project is criticized by several environmental associations. The collective “Bassines Non Merci” does not see the project with a good eye. “Sainte-Soline is 720,000 cubic meters of water on more than 10 hectares, 18 kilometers of pipes for farmers, not one of whom has given up pesticides. We don’t want it to be done here, we don’t want it to be done elsewhere,” said Melissa Gingreau, spokesperson for the movement.

First of all, because the water from these basins is pumped directly into groundwater or streams during the winter period and not collected by rainfall runoff.

For the demonstrators it is a “grabbing of water by agribusiness”. By drawing water from groundwater, it deprives them of being able to replenish themselves.

In addition, it prevents the land from loading up with this water in a natural way. Not to mention the loss of the resource due to evaporation. When water is in groundwater, it cannot evaporate, but if it is stored in basins from winter to summer the risk of loss rises between 20% and 60%, as Christian Amblard, a specialist in water and hydrobiological systems, honorary director of research at the CNRS explains to Franceinfo. For the specialist these reservations are “nonsense”.

For ecologists, it is also a question of encouraging a model of agriculture that must no longer exist in view of climate change. Greenpeace explains: “The mega-basins are mainly used to feed very water-intensive productions, such as maize, mainly intended for industrial farming. They serve above all the interests of agro-industrial actors, to the detriment of local and peasant solutions.” (3)

France24:  Clashes as thousands march in France against agro-industry water ‘megabasins’

“Clashes between paramilitary gendarmes and demonstrators erupted, with Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin reporting that 61 officers had been hurt, 22 seriously, but giving no toll for casualties among protesters.

Bassines Non Merci” a pressure group that brings together environmental associations, trade unions, and anti-capitalist groups, organised the demonstration against what it claims is a “water grab” by the “agro-industry” in western France.

The deployment of giant water “basins” is underway in the village of Sainte-Soline, in the Deux-Sèvres department, to irrigate crops, which opponents claim distorts access to water amid drought conditions. Around 1,500 police were deployed according to the prefect of the Deux-Sèvres department Emmanuelle Dubée who said she expected some 5,000 demonstrators to descend on the village of around 350 inhabitants.”

Dubée said on Friday that she had wanted to limit possible “acts of violence”, referring to the clashes between demonstrators and security forces that marred a previous rally in March.  The Sainte-Soline water reserve is the second of 16 such installations, part of a project developed by a group of 400 farmers organised in a water cooperative to significantly reduce mains water usage in summer.  The open-air craters, covered with a plastic tarpaulin, are filled by pumping water from surface groundwater in winter and can store up to 650,000 square metres of water.  This water is used for irrigation in summer when rainfall is scarcer.  Opponents claim the “megabasins” are wrongly reserved for large export-oriented grain farms and deprive the community of access to the essential resource. (2)

November 2022

NYT:  French Police Guard Water as Seasonal Drought Intensifies:  New reservoirs designed to supply French farms with water in increasingly arid growing seasons have attracted opposition from environmentalists.

MAUZÉ-SUR-LE-MIGNON, France — Wearing bulletproof vests and carrying guns, the gendarmes appear suddenly in the middle of farm fields misted by morning rain. They stand behind two fences equipped with security cameras and overhead lights, looking every bit 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 France’s water wars.

World leaders gathered for two weeks at the COP27 climate conference in Egypt, debating ways to mitigate the effects of climate change and the conflicts it engenders. But while the competition for scarce water is associated more with arid regions in the Middle East and Africa, Europe is not immune.

After a scorching summer that climatologists called a harrowing postcard from the future, with record heat waveswildfires and droughts that dried up rivers, France is now embroiled in a widening battle over who should get priority to use its water and how.

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

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

Confrontations between the two sides have grown increasingly ugly — a taste, perhaps, of the water wars predicted to worsen around the world as temperatures rise.

Thousands of activists opposed to the latest reservoir under construction, in the western region of Nouvelle-Aquitaine, recently faced off against some 1,600 military police officers in the middle of fields of rapeseed and the dried-up remains of wheat.

That normally picturesque countryside was transformed into a scene from a dystopian novel — police officers wearing riot gear, armored trucks shooting tear gas canisters, smoke billowing and helicopters roaring overhead.

The protesters later paraded with two sections of water pipes they had dug up and dismantled so 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.”

“It’s them that are eco-terrorists,” responded Jean-Jacques Guillet, a former mayor of three villages, watching diggers claw at the red earth on 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 police officers standing nearby.

There are hundreds of thousands of water reservoirs across France that farmers have used for generations, stirring little controversy. To environmentalists, what makes the newest ones different is their size and the source of the water they collect.

The latest under construction will span 16 hectares (nearly 40 acres) and hold the equivalent of 288 Olympic swimming pools full of groundwater, pumped in by pipes. Opponents like Mr. Guillet call them “mega-basins.”

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

There is no official count of how many mega-reservoirs exist, but activists estimate there are about 50, clustered in the west of the country. The scene of the latest battle is in the region of Deux-Sèvres, 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 bolstering the biodiversity on their lands.

The cooperative, called Water Co-op 79, considers the planned mega-basins a lifeline. “The idea is to secure water to keep agriculture in the territory,” says François Petorin, a grain farmer, who grows wheat, rapeseed, sunflowers, and a little corn over 210 hectares. “We know that two years out of 10, there’s a risk that we won’t fill the reservoirs 100 percent. But today, 10 years out of 10, we risk not being able to water our fields.”

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

Rather than forcing farmers to find less water-intensive forms of agriculture, the reservoirs will actually increase their water use largely to irrigate corn fields, opponents argue. (4)

Le Monde also reported on these events:   Water ‘mega-basins’ stir up turmoil in western France.

What Next?

  1. Global water scarcity figures prominently in the future of regional and global conflict, economic instability, the climate refugee crisis and growing involuntary migration patterns worldwide.  
  2. Europe will remain a flashpoint
  3. The U.S. also continues to face unprecedented climate crises brought on by historic drought conditions
  4. Cybersecurity:  Critical Infrastructure like water facilities are prone to various types of cybersecurity vulnerabilities, with U.S. Water Utilities Prime Cyberattack Targets.

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Daniel Pereira

Daniel Pereira

Daniel Pereira is research director at OODA. He is a foresight strategist, creative technologist, and an information communication technology (ICT) and digital media researcher with 20+ years of experience directing public/private partnerships and strategic innovation initiatives.