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Protests Over Water Reservoirs, France

Alice Huaut

14th May 2023

A violent non-authorized protest arose in the region of les Deux-Sèvres in Sainte Soline against a project of water reservoirs Saturday, 25th, and Sunday, 26th of March 2023. The construction of a six-million-meter cube reservoir supported by the state and a collective of 450 farmers would cost 70 million euros, 70% subsidized by the state. This article will illustrate the protest's violent aspect, explain its cause, and comment on alternatives to water reservoirs.

At least 6,000 people, according to the prefecture, and over 30,000, according to organizers, gathered to protest. In response to the unauthorized protest: 3,200 security forces and ten helicopters were deployed. Progressively, an opposition resembling one of a war scene started to take shape. Videos of the violent confrontations released by the news source Le Monde illustrated the unruly battle. A demonstrator was struck by an unauthorized tear gas grenade fired from one of the sites where the gendarmes were stationed. Likewise, another tear gas grenade fired with the strongest propulsion device and too horizontally struck a demonstrator in the head. Furthermore, the Deux-Sèvres Prefet was accused of human rights violations as the emergency units encountered difficulties reaching Sainte Solin to rescue injured individuals. Marine Tondelier, national secretary of EELV–The Greens Party–, reported seeing tear gas grenade attacks directed towards already injured protestors by security units equipped with quads. In response to accusations directed towards state violence, the Ministry of the Interior has commented on the abuse of violence used by the ‘extreme-left’ or ‘black blocks’ present during the protest.

Although not all protestors approved of violence, many hoped it would serve as a symbolic call for help and attract attention to the cause which reunited them. For context, the water reservoirs in France are open-air water storage areas. They may reach the size of 10 soccer fields and do not solely gather raining water but pump out water from existing water tables. In the winter, water reservoirs fill themselves. The water is stored and then used during the dry summer months. The cause of this social unrest requires comprehending the negative environmental impact of these open-sky reservoirs. Those opposed to these water reservoirs argue that it is less effective since the stagnant water in the open sky reservoirs is subject to evaporation.

Individuals are increasingly concerned by how water is stored and used since the region of the Deux-Sevres is now a victim of water scarcity. In 2022, Delphine Batho, ecologist deputy for the Deux-Sevres, reminded individuals that they “had to import drinkable water”. Likewise, Nadia Carluer, Hydrologist at l’INRAE Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, states: “Retaining water always impacts water courses and aquatic sites”. However, although Ecological Transition Minister, Christophe Béchu, acknowledges that water reservoirs are not a long-term solution, he defends their current use claiming that they “ensure agricultural production, to feed us.”

Nevertheless, other solutions to feed people and save water deserve greater attention. According to Marie-Pierre Répécaud, agroecology offers alternatives to the reservoir strategy. Agroecology translates into diversifying plant species, reducing the use of pesticides, and decreasing water retention to allow for better water infiltration and the long-term sustainability of the soil. Without tillage, we can increase water retention by 6 to 12%. Another solution to consider is the ability to reuse and treat wastewater. On the 30th of March 2023, Emmanuel Macron announced in his water sobriety plan that by 2030, France would reuse 10% of its wastewater, contrasting with today's under 1% reuse of wastewater. Finally, drip-irrigation–which entails “placing tubing with emitters on the ground alongside the plants”, increases moisture levels since the water from the emitters gently seeps into the root zone of the soil–laying emitter-equipped tubing next to the plants on the ground–allows for the optimization of water supply.

The water reservoir solution supported by the French state in Sainte-Soline failed to consider diverging interests and concerns of various actors. In addition, using violence in response to the protest was criticized and reflected the polarization between the people and the state. In regions of the world subject to water scarcity and tensions, water disputes are one of the anticipated effects of climate change. The conflicts increasing in France, a nation experiencing the beginning of moderate water scarcity, demonstrate this foreshadowing effect of climate change. Understanding, analyzing, and resolving the local water crisis is preparation for future conflicts. Fundamentally, irrigating fields and constructing reservoirs to store water are not senseless. However, the weaknesses of water reservoirs should be acknowledged, and looking beyond this short-term strategy is crucial. 

Edited by: Youssef Eljarray


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