With the drought, the water war has begun

Water thefts, fields irrigated despite bans, private swimming pools that are difficult to control… The lack of water, long seen as an inexhaustible resource in France, exacerbates tensions.

"This year is really exceptional," notes a specialist in the water sector who requested anonymity. In the south-east of France where it operates, conflicts over water are not new. But "today, it's exacerbated," he says.

In mid-July, 400 m3 of water intended for firefighting were stolen from a retention basin in Ardèche, a department in "reinforced vigilance" drought.

The guilty ? A neighboring motocross club, which came to pump it "to supply (its) fire reserve and the security of the parking lot as part of the organization of a festival", explained to AFP its vice-president, Roger Kappel.

"This water for me is a public good", he justifies. “We recognize that we really had no right to do so” and the water was returned.

“This is the first time that it has happened to us”, assures the president of the Community of communes of the Bassin d'Aubenas, Max Tourvieilhe. “It's dangerous (…) there hasn't been a drop of water that has fallen for months, the prefect is asking us to reduce water consumption (…) and besides that we allow ourselves to recover 400 m3 of water for private use? No, that is not possible! he thunders.

In Charente-Maritime, some farmers irrigate their crops, ignoring the limitations, protests the NGO France Nature Environnement (FNE).

"A minority of farmers violate the irrigation ban orders and endanger a precious resource, a common good, water", she denounces, relying on a letter from the association of irrigators of Poitou-Charentes.

Play the game

Metropolitan France is experiencing a historic drought, a sign of climate change. Only 9,7 millimeters of rain fell in July, a rainfall deficit of around 84% compared to normal for the period 1991-2020, according to Météo-France.

"We discover that this water which we thought was inexhaustible is rare, it will become increasingly rare at certain times of the year and we will have to share it", comments Thierry Burlot, president of the Loire-Bretagne basin committee, on France Culture.

All of the departments of mainland France are on drought alert, with 22 departments on heightened alert and 68 in crisis.

In the event of water shortages, there are four levels: vigilance, alert, heightened alert, crisis, with increasingly stringent restrictions, which affect individuals, farmers and industrialists alike.

"We want to reduce withdrawals so that there is less pressure from human activities and maintain enough water for the most important uses" (drinking water, sanitation, health, safety), explains to AFP Agnès Ducharne , researcher at the CNRS.

But “we are on the bone in terms of water resources: the pie is shrinking, conflicts are sharpening and therefore this raises the question of the legitimacy of uses, (…) of fair treatment between social groups “, analyzes Sylvain Barone, researcher at the National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment (Inrae), on France Culture.

In concrete terms, how do you explain to an elderly person that they cannot water their vegetable garden during the day, when part of the golf courses and football fields are? wonders the specialist in the water sector.

He also cites the private swimming pools of wealthy residences on the coast of Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, which are difficult to control and whose owners "do not care about the water bill", or tourist municipalities by the sea, attached to their flowerbeds, when small villages in the hinterland "play the game".

"We must ensure that the biggest consumers make the biggest efforts", he pleads.

Faced with water that has become a rarer commodity, "this will require compromises", as well as water management "throughout the year" and no longer just in summer during shortages, argues Thierry Burlot.

The Editorial Board (with AFP)

Image credit: Shutterstock.com / Photoagriculture

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