Drought fuels water conflict in France, Spain as farmers face fury

Protesters attend a demonstration called by the collective 'Bassines Non Merci' against the 'basins' on the construction site of new water storage infrastructure for agricultural irrigation in western France, in Sainte-Soline, France March 25, 2023. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Protesters attend a demonstration called by the collective "Bassines Non Merci" against the "basins" on the construction site of new water storage infrastructure for agricultural irrigation in western France, in Sainte-Soline, France March 25, 2023. REUTERS/Yves Herman

What’s the context?

In drought-hit western France, conflict between farmers and environmentalists is growing over new irrigation reservoirs

  • More than a quarter of Europe in drought in April
  • Tensions rise over water shortages in France and Spain
  • Calls to reform agricultural model amid climate change

MAUZE-SUR-LE-MIGNON, France - The grey skies were a welcome sight for drought-hit farmers in France's Nouvelle Aquitaine region. But rare rains earlier this month offered only brief respite for agricultural producers, whose weather woes are now being compounded by growing conflict over scarce water.

Tensions between environmental campaigners and farmers over the construction of giant irrigation reservoirs have sown division in rural communities in this picturesque part of western France.

Activists say the sites, which they call "mega-basins", are too big and only benefit industrial farms, with the non-profit Bassines Non Merci (BNM) describing them as a "water grab".

Many farmers, however, see such water storage as key to the economic survival of agriculture and food security in the area - and say they are disheartened by demonstrations against the reservoirs, some of which have culminated in violent clashes.

"(The protests) place an unbearable pressure on us and our families," said Francois Petorin, administrator of Water Co-op 79, a cooperative representing at least 200 farmers in the area.

"Everyone criticises us but no one offers a solution."

France has just endured the worst winter drought in its history, with the driest February since 1959, while neighbouring Spain is suffering from three years of below-average rainfall, placing strain on water supplies for household use, agriculture and energy production. 

As climate change brings more rainfall extremes - and worsening droughts across much of southern Europe - growing water shortages are prompting a rethink of traditional European agriculture, including how limited supplies should be allocated.

Increasingly, water is a source of conflict as droughts pit farmers – among the region's heaviest users of ever-dwindling supplies – against everybody else, raising questions about how water management needs to change as climate change takes hold.

"Droughts are going to be more frequent and more intense, and we have an agricultural model which continually increases its demand on water," said Jesús Vargas, a drought expert at Spain's University of Malaga.

"Obviously this cannot be sustained."

Graphic showing freshwater abstraction by source. Source: European Environment Agency. Diana Baptista/Thomson Reuters Foundation

Graphic showing freshwater abstraction by source. Source: European Environment Agency. Diana Baptista/Thomson Reuters Foundation

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France's 'green Venice' sees red

In the Poitevin marshland in Nouvelle Aquitaine - which is France's second largest wetland, known as 'Green Venice' - a labyrinth of natural water channels and man-made canals snake across 28,000 hectares (69,190 acres) of marsh meadows and trees.

Now, the area is at the heart of a conflict between farmers, environmental activists and policy makers over the irrigation reservoirs.

The basins are filled using pumps that take water from the underground water table during the winter, which is supposed to be replenished by seasonal rains to ensure sufficient reserves for irrigation during dry spells in spring and summer.

But as rain becomes less reliable in southern Europe, that replenishment is no longer assured, with opponents of the reservoirs fearing water shortages could hit nature and other users.

Last October and this March, violent clashes broke out between anti-reservoir protesters and police during unauthorised demonstrations at the Sainte Soline "mega-basin".

Interior minister Gerald Darmanin described the protesters as "eco-terrorists", and police now stand guard at reservoir sites under construction.

Julien Le Guet, a spokesman for activist group BNM, said an agricultural revolution is needed that cuts water and pesticide use and promotes biodiversity restoration.

Right now, policymakers are "spending crazy amounts of time and money to maintain an ecocidal system", he said.

Yet Petorin of Water Co-op 79 stressed that farmers in the cooperative only extract set volumes of water that have been assigned to them.

As part of a 2018 sustainable agriculture deal between local authorities, farmers and other users, Water Co-op 79 agreed to reduce pesticide use and plant hedges to boost biodiversity, in return for access to water in the basins.

"If we don't continue with this project, there are farms that won't survive," Petorin added. "We have no other choice."

While most farmers in the area are thought to support the reservoirs, some small-scale growers do not, saying that they are losing out to large industrial farms with the money to install and maintain the pumps and pipes to access the water.

The Sainte Soline basin is one of 16 giant reservoirs that have recently been approved for construction in the Poitevin marshland by a court in the region.

But lawmaker and former environment minister Delphine Batho, who represents the region and has criticised the reservoirs, said curbing water use in agriculture is a better way forward.

"Adapting to climate change means planting trees, restoring wetlands and using less water for irrigation than we do now, because, quite simply, there will be less water," she said.

A warning from Spain's wetlands

The picture is similar in Spain's Doñana wildlife reserve, one of Europe's largest wetlands. Lagoons have dried out and biodiversity is disappearing as the area suffers from water being diverted to irrigate farmland, green campaigners say.

Le Guet of BNM described Doñana as "the big brother of the Poitevin marsh with the same system of intense cultivation".

"It might be five to six years ahead of us in terms of damage, but it's the same causes, the same effects," he added.

While some irrigation is allowed around Doñana, many farmers use illegal wells which are draining groundwater supplies - with the central government on a drive to shut hundreds of the wells.

In April, Andalusia's regional government announced plans to allow agricultural irrigation in five municipalities around the park.

The plan drew criticism from the government in Madrid and from the European Commission in Brussels, which had already referred Spain to the European Union's top court in January over a failure to protect the wetlands.

Andalusia, where the park is located, is one of the nation's leading food exporting regions. Spanish farmers nationwide fear losses of up to 60% of their crops this year due to drought.

Alfonso Gálvez, a spokesman for the Murcian agricultural association Asaja, called for aid for farmers and regulatory change easing restrictions on water and fertiliser use in order to "fight against these droughts".

Spain and France have requested EU financial support to help cope with losses caused by the severe drought conditions.

But while emergency funding could provide short-term relief to farmers, some hydrology experts say a major rethink is needed in the face of climate change to save water and livelihoods.

"We need a debate on how to change the agricultural model," said Vargas of the University of Malaga.

"Otherwise, we are going to have conflicts all the time. And in the end, many farmers will be forced to abandon their land."

An aerial view shows the construction site of new water storage infrastructure for agricultural irrigation in western France, in Sainte-Soline, France April 4, 2023. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

An aerial view shows the construction site of new water storage infrastructure for agricultural irrigation in western France, in Sainte-Soline, France April 4, 2023. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

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Farming for the future

Adapting agriculture to climate change without jeopardising wetlands and keeping farmers in business requires a different approach, said Marc Bierkens, a hydrology professor at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

For example, storing water underground is better than building reservoirs, he said, to avoid issues like evaporation and algae blooms.
Bierkens also called for changes in the crop mix.

"You should not grow melons and strawberries in an arid climate," he explained. Researchers point to alternatives such as carob or millet which can tolerate drier environmental conditions.

For this, Bierkens said, EU legislation is key, with regulations now sometimes contradictory.

One directive, for example, requires EU nations to promote sustainable water use - but the bloc's signature Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) subsidises farmers to irrigate crops on a large scale.

The EU Court of Auditors in 2021 said the CAP did not promote efficient water use or retention, and called on the Commission to link agricultural payments to sustainable water use.

In Nouvelle Aquitaine, at the centre of the conflict over water, Petorin says farmers are caught in the crosshairs.

"We have tried to update our practices, we are doing everything they've asked," he said. "And it's still not enough."

(Reporting by Joanna Gill, additional reporting by Oscar Valero; Editing by Kieran Guilbert and Laurie Goering.)


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  • Extreme weather
  • Adaptation
  • Agriculture and farming
  • Loss and damage
  • Water

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