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Court cancels two water ‘megabasin’ projects in western France

The controversial reservoirs were ‘not associated with any real water-saving measures,’ it ruled

An aerial view of a farming reservoir

The reservoirs are intended to provide farmers with water for agricultural use in summer but critics say they amount to water hoarding and are environmentally damaging Pic: Sobrevolando Patagonia / Shutterstock

A court in France has cancelled two controversial ‘mega reservoir’ (méga-bassines) projects in western France, citing their ‘lack of suitability’ in the context of climate change.

The reservoirs - projects for which exist across France - were intended to hold up to three million metres cubed of water across 15 reserves in Poitou-Charentes. 

Proponents of such reservoirs say they will serve as a ‘stockpile’ of water for farmers and take water from the ground in winter only, so that they will use less groundwater in the summer months when the resource is rare.

But critics, including environmental campaigners, say that the reservoirs amount to unfair water hoarding, and will worsen existing problems with dropping groundwater levels and drought conditions. They also say that the reservoirs waste around 20% of the water through evaporation alone.

There is no official figure for how many such ‘basins’ there are in France. One government website suggests there are around 100 such projects but the environmental campaign groups Bassines non merci and Les Soulèvements de la Terre say that there are around 300. Most are found in the west of the country.

Read more: What are France’s ‘mega reservoirs’ and why are they so controversial? 

Court: ‘Inaccuracies, omissions and inadequacies’

The Poitiers court was asked to examine the cases of nine projects for these reservoirs in the departments of Charente, Charente-Maritime and Deux-Sèvres, and six others near Pallu, in Vienne. 

The opponents’ goal was to ask the court to cancel the prefectural decree that authorised the start of these reservoir projects in 2021.

In its ruling on October 3, the court cancelled two projects, and said that there were “inaccuracies, omissions and inadequacies” in the environmental impact study that was carried out for the basins. 

These problems “had the effect of hindering the provision of full information to the public”, the court said.

It also found that “the projects are not associated with any real water-saving measures and do not take account of the foreseeable effects of climate change”.

In Vienne, the judges called the projects “oversized” in comparison to the volume of water intended to be taken from the environment, and in contrast to what the local water environment would be “capable of providing under satisfactory ecological conditions”. 

It also said that the projects did not take into account the “foreseeable effects of climate change”.

Controversial projects and protests

The basins have proved very controversial. A furore erupted in March this year after a protest at the Sainte-Soline reservoir site turned violent. One man was severely injured and left in a coma after clashes with police and gendarmerie. Tear gas and quad bikes were used to dispel crowds.

Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin even called for the protest group, les Soulèvements de la Terre, to be disbanded.

Read more: French minister wants eco group disbanded over reservoir violence 

Sainte-Soline (along with another site at Mauzé-sur-le-Mignon) is part of a project of 16 reservoirs around the Sèvre and Mignon river basin near Niort.

These 16 reservoirs alone will stock a total of six million cubic metres of water and will be used by a cooperative of 450 farmers, with support from the state.

Farmers have called them their “life insurance policies” in case of dry summers, and say they are essential to protect their ability to grow crops and provide food even when water would otherwise be in short supply.

However, the drop in groundwater levels in France has led to worsening drought conditions in the summer months, with hundreds of communes left without drinking water at the peak of the summer this year.

This is not the first time that a court has cancelled reservoir projects.

In January, the administrative court of appeal in Bordeaux cancelled six projects in Charente-Maritime, saying that the amount of water planned for the reservoirs was “excessive”.

Later, in February, the Conseil d’Etat court banned five more reservoirs in the department from being filled due to a lack of studies on their impact.

Related articles 

Go-ahead for controversial ‘mega reservoirs’ in west France
Several injured in ‘water basin protest’ in France: What happened? 
Man in coma after ‘intolerable violence’ at France reservoir protests

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