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Protests over ‘absurd’ farming water reservoirs in France injure 91

Gendarmerie officers were among those hurt over the weekend as protests over local farming water reservoirs turned violent. Critics have denounced the plans

A photo of an irrigation tube with water rushing out of it

The water reservoirs are intended to be used by farmers in the summer months but protesters say that this use of water is ‘absurd’ given the current drought situation Pic: safakcakir / Shutterstock

Violent clashes that injured 30 people and 61 gendarmerie officers erupted over the weekend in west France, during protests by eco-campaigners against the construction of farming water reservoirs.

Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said that more than 1,000 gendarmerie officers remained in Sainte-Soline (Deux-Sèvres) yesterday (Sunday, October 30) at the request of the president to ensure that “no areas of conflict emerge”.

He added that there were “fewer than a dozen arrests”. The state put the number of protesters at 4,000, while organisers claim that the number was closer to 7,000.

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The statement came after two days of clashes at the site.

On Saturday, protesters broke through gates to the entrance, before being pushed back. On Sunday, they cut off a section of the piping, claiming that it is intended to fill another future reservoir. However, the interior minister denied this, saying that the pipes were the private property of a farmer.

‘Eco-terrorism’

Mr Darmanin said that the action amounted to “eco-terrorism” and said that around 40 activists on the fichés S (police potential offender watchlist) had been identified at the site.

Authorities have also claimed that the protesters threw projectiles, including Molotov cocktail explosives, towards the gendarmerie, who responded with tear gas.

Mr Darmanin said that on Saturday night, 66 officers were injured, of which 22 “seriously”, with some “still hospitalised”. Protest organisers say that around 50 of their participants were injured, of which five were hospitalised.

Several activists, including two MEPs from the green party Europe Ecologie-Les Verts (EELV) have alleged that they “received hits from law enforcement officers during operations”. 

Protests at the site had been banned by the Deux-Sèvres prefecture.

Protesters are continuing to occupy a field close to the site, with the permission of a local farmer who has lent them the land. 

On Sunday, they began building watchtowers on the site. Activist spokesperson Julien Le Guet said that this location will become "the starting point for a whole range of actions that will be carried out if the work continues”.

Mr Darmanin said that "the state cannot intervene" on private land, or prevent opponents from settling there, but he said that the state could and would prepare appeals against these "obviously totally illegal" constructions, in order to "have them destroyed".

Why is the site controversial? 

It is the location of a construction site of a water reservoir that will store water reserved for farming. Its capacity alone is set to be equal to 20 Olympic swimming pools.

Protesters say that this storage and supply of water is inappropriate given the current drought situation in France and climate change. They are intent on occupying the site and stopping the work from going ahead.

Sainte-Soline is the second of a project to build 16 reserves, developed by a group of 400 farmers, united under the banner of the ‘Coop de l'eau’. The aim is to "reduce summer water withdrawals by 70%", in a region that is still subject to irrigation restrictions, after an exceptional summer drought and continued warm weather.

Read more: Drought map: See what water restrictions apply in your department

The reserves are open-air basins, covered with plastic, which are set to be filled by pumping water from the surface water table in winter. Once all of the reserves are built, together they are set to store up to 650,000 m3 (or 260 Olympic-sized swimming pools) of water. 

The farmers say that this will stop them from needing to take water from the under-pressure water table in summer, but protesters say that even taking water from the ground during winter is inappropriate.

Former presidential candidate and MEP Yannick Jadot, who is in support of the protest, said: “It's October 29, it's dry everywhere. It's absurd to take all the water available for use by a few corn farmers. Political party La France Insoumise was also in support at the protest.

Read more: Drought measures extended into October in south-east France 

‘No negative consequences’...but pesticide doubts

However, Ecology Minister Christophe Béchu has said that the project will have “no negative consequences” for water levels. 

Speaking to FranceInter, he cited a geological study from the Bureau de recherches géologiques et minières (BRGM), saying that on the contrary, the project could increase the flow of rivers "by 5% to 6%" in the summer, compared to a decrease of 1% in the winter (compared to the period 2000-2011).

However, the study did not take into account the potential evaporation levels at future reserves, nor the threat of recurrent drought due to global warming.

And Mr Béchu also said that the “proposals signed by everyone four years ago" – after a long consultation between farmers, elected officials, authorities, and relevant associations – stated that access to the water was supposed to be conditional on changes in certain farming practices, such as the reduction of pesticides, planting of hedges, and conversion to eco-friendly farming.

Yet, none of the 10 farmers using the first reservoir "has signed up to a reduction in pesticides", said Vincent Bretagnolle, a member of the project's scientific and technical monitoring committee (CST). 

He added that since the signing, several associations have withdrawn from the plans.

The controversy continues.

Related articles 

70 French departments still have top level drought alert despite rain

This is how much rainfall France needs to end the drought

60 French departments have ‘crisis’ drought alerts as heat continues

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