Water theft, fields irrigated despite the ban, private swimming pools difficult to control… The lack of water, long considered an inexhaustible resource in France, is exacerbating tensions.
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Like many European countries, France has been hit by repeated heat waves and exceptional drought this summer.
“This year is really extraordinary,” notes a water sector expert who asked not to be identified. In south-east France, where he lives, water conflicts are not new, but “today they are getting worse”.
In mid-July, 400m3 of water used to fight the fire was stolen from a retention basin in Ardèche, a department in the south hit by a drought with “reinforced vigilance”.
The guilty? A neighboring motocross club that had come to pump it “to supply (his) firefighting reserve and parking lot security as part of organizing a festival,” its vice president Roger Kappel told AFP.
“For me, this water is a public good,” he explains. “We recognize that we really had no right to do so” and the water was returned.
“This is the first time this has happened to us,” assures Max Tourvieilhe, President of the Community of Communes in the Aubenas Basin in Ardèche.
“It is dangerous (…) not a drop of water has fallen for months, the prefect asks us to reduce water consumption (…) and also allow ourselves to recover 400 m3 of water for private use? No, this is not possible! he thunders.
To the west, in the Charente-Maritime department on the Atlantic coast, some farmers are irrigating their fields and ignoring the restrictions, protests the NGO France Nature Environnement (FNE).
“A minority of farmers are violating irrigation bans and endangering a precious resource, a commons, water,” she says.
“Play the Game”
Metropolitan France is experiencing a historic drought, a sign of climate change. According to meteorologist Météo-France, only 9.7 millimeters of rain fell in July, a rainfall deficit of around 84% compared to the normal value for the period 1991-2020.
“We discover that this water, which we thought was inexhaustible, is rare. It becomes increasingly rare at certain times of the year and must be shared, ”comments Thierry Burlot, President of the Committee of the Loire-Brittany Basin (West), in an interview with France Culture Radio.
Currently, all metropolitan departments are on drought alert, 22 departments are on high alert and 68 are in crisis.
In this highest alert level, watering lawns, vehicles or watering crops is prohibited, as is filling water bodies. Restrictions apply to everyone, individuals, farmers or industrialists.
We must “reserve enough water for the most important uses” (drinking water, sanitation, health, safety), Agnès Ducharne, a researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) tells AFP.
But “when it comes to water resources, we are on our feet: the pie is shrinking, conflicts are intensifying, and this raises the question of the legitimacy of uses, (…) fair treatment between social groups,” analyzes Sylvain Barone, researcher and specialist in the water sector, on French culture.
Specifically: “How do you explain to an elderly person that they cannot water their vegetable garden during the day when part of the golf and soccer fields are in place? he asks himself.
He also cites the difficult-to-control private swimming pools of wealthy residences on the Mediterranean coast of the Côte d’Azur (southeast) whose owners “don’t care about the water bills”, or tourist communities on the edge of the sea, tied to their flower beds when small villages in the Hinterland “play the game”.
“We need to ensure that the biggest consumers make the biggest effort,” he says.
With water becoming scarce, Thierry Burlot argues, “this requires compromises” and water management “all year round” and not just in the summer when there is a shortage.