Water conflicts multiply in France as drought restrictions extended

Holes torn in jacuzzis and water stolen from tanks and cemeteries as people take issue with certain water usages and limits

Conflicts over water supply and usage are multiplying in France, as drought restrictions affect the vast majority of the population
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Conflicts over water supplies are on the rise as restrictions are applied across most of France and many residents have their usage limited or cut off at certain times of the day.

All of France’s metropolitan departments now have some level of drought warning or water limiting in place, and over half are at crisis level – the highest possible alert – with new restrictions being added on a daily basis.

The residents of some communes are being told to keep their daily usage to 150 or 200 litres per person, with physical limiters being installed in the houses of those who fail to comply.

Other towns and villages no longer have access to tap water, and so must rely on deliveries from water trucks.

Thefts and vandalism

‘Blue gold’ has been stolen or drained from water tanks, jacuzzis, cemetery taps and more, as France struggles under an “historic and exceptional” drought.

Read more: Rainwater, wells: eight questions about water restrictions in France

On July 16, the theft of 400m³ of water meant for firefighting in Ardèche provoked concerns over the growing possibility of the entrenchment of a “water war” between residents trying to access the increasingly scarce resource in times of drought.

Earlier this month, a motocross club admitted having stolen the water, saying that it wanted to use it to water its course. It later returned the water it had taken.

During the night of July 28, jacuzzis belonging to five holiday rental properties were torn open in Gérardmer (Vosges) in north-east France, Libération reports. A message reading: “Water is for drinking” was found at the scene.

The town, which is near the German border, has been forced to pump water from its lake since August 3 for resident use, as its tap water became undrinkable.

This is because the Ramberchamp phreatic zone, which normally supplies the town, has fallen to a level too low for use among the population.

Gérardmer also had to pump water from its lake in 2003, 2015 and 2020, but never so early in the year.

On Monday and Tuesday night (August 8 and 9), two agricultural water reservoirs in Pouillé and Nalliers (Vendée) were vandalised.

These “acts of defacement and malice” have been described as “anti-environmental and anti-agricultural,” by local water bodies, who have lodged complaints claiming a loss in value of around €1million.

Vendée’s prefecture has called for a multiplication of patrols around water tanks, and MP Pierre Henriet has suggested that the perpetrators of water thefts “are heavily sanctioned, considering the consequences for biodiversity and the risk for farmers and our food supply.”

Ignoring water restrictions

In Charente-Maritime, some farmers have admitted to continuing to irrigate their fields despite restrictions imposed by the prefecture.

Read more: Vigilance, alert, crisis: what France’s four drought warnings mean

Pascal Ribreau, one of 110 farmers in the department who have confessed to watering their crops despite rules to the contrary, told FranceInfo: “We have to feed our family, we have extra charges to pay, which have increased due to the conflict in Ukraine. It’s not good, we know but we did it.”

Mr Ribreau has had his farming equipment confiscated as a result after three months of ‘illegal’ watering.

NGO France Nature Environnement has stated: “A minority of farmers are breaching the decrees banning irrigation and are endangering a precious resource, a common good: water.”

An ‘exceptional’ year for drought in France

“This year has really been exceptional,” a water supply expert wishing to remain anonymous told AFP, adding that while conflicts over the resource were not new, they are now “exacerbated”.

On average, 9.7mm of rain fell in France in July, constituting a rainfall deficit of 84%. That month was the second driest since records began.

Thierry Burlot, president of the Comité de bassin Loire-Bretagne, told Radio France: “We are discovering that this water that we believed to be inexhaustible is rare; it will become more and more rare at certain times of year and we will have to share it out.”

Sylvain Barone, a researcher at agricultural and environmental agency Inrae, told the same station: “We are at rock bottom in terms of water resources: as the share [available] is reduced, conflicts peak and [people] question the legitimacy of [certain] usages.”

Abou Amani, director of the Division of Water Sciences at Unesco, said: “As long as people have thought that water is a given and abundantly available, we have ignored its value.

“Water is a precious good, which we must know how to manage and share, thinking also about future generations.

“We must therefore take actions in advance to avoid finding ourselves caught out,” he added.

Geographer and member of the Haut conseil pour le climat Magali Reghezza has said: “If there is a ‘water war’, climate change is not the only cause. We must consider the vulnerabilities aggravated by an accumulation of crises, inaction and the status quo.”

However, she added that France has a system of distribution and controls which should help to resolve conflicts that do occur.

Educating the population

“People who use the same source must understand its priority [usages], like hygiene, health, security: for example, we must have water for fire hydrants,” Mr Amani said.

Other experts have also called for education campaigns sharing water-saving techniques such as taking a shower instead of a bath, turning off the tap while brushing one’s teeth and choosing home appliances which use less water.

Read more: ‘You have to change your lifestyle’: tips to cut water usage in France

People in France use 149 litres of water per day on average, but only 1% of this is drunk; the rest is used for other purposes around the house which can be made more economical.

Read more: French drought measures: How much water do household appliances use?

Franck Galland, who is a researcher at the Fondation pour la recherche stratégique (FRS) has also called for the law on water thefts to be made more severe, especially with regards to the opening of fire hydrants in an illegal practice called ‘street pooling’.

This was especially common during the Ile-de-France canicule heatwave in 2015, and in 2017, when 500 hydrants were vandalised over a single day in the region, resulting in a loss of 150,000 cubic metres of water.

Last February, the government created a new offence linked to vandalising fire hydrants, which will enable authorities to hand out fines of up to €750 to offenders.

Mr Galland also called for water authorities to recycle used water rather than releasing it into rivers, saying: “We must reinject it into a closed circuit, like that which exists in Israel and Singapore.”

Treated recycled water could be used for irrigation, or for watering golf courses.

Currently, only 0.6% of used water is recycled in France, as compared to 8% in Italy and 14% in Spain, according to the Office international de l’eau (OIE).

“We have a lot to learn from these semi-arid countries which have adapted earlier than us,” Mr Galland added.

“Even if we have the technology to treat this water, we do not have the infrastructure.”

In 2019, the OIE reported that the French government was aiming to triple the amount of recycled water used in France by 2025.

You can find out more about the drought restrictions in place in your department and your local area through the government’s Propluvia website.

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