Protest Against Irrigation Projects: The “Water War of the Deux Sèvres”

Clashes break out in France during protests against a publicly funded irrigation project. Record: Dozens injured.

Activists go through tear gas

Tear gas at a demonstration by the Bassines Non Merci collective against the construction of a water reservoir Photo: Pascal Lachenaud/dpa

PARIS taz | Enormous artificial water basins should enable large agricultural businesses in western France to irrigate their fields in summer when there is no rainfall. On Saturday, trade unions, Greens and environmental organizations in Sainte-Soline in the western French department of Les Deux Sèvres called for a demonstration against the project.

In this place between La Rochelle and Poitiers, the second of 16 planned water reservoirs is under construction. The open crater, which is to be lined with plastic, could store up to 650,000 cubic meters of water (equivalent to about 260 Olympic-sized swimming pools) pumped from underground in winter to irrigate corn fields in summer. According to the critics, water is already scarce in this region even in winter.

In addition, the water diverted for private interests could be missing from the neighboring Marais Poitevin Nature Park and endanger this swamp area. The estimated cost of the project at around 60 million euros will be financed to 70 percent with public funds. That outraged the opponents even more.

Authorities had banned the rally because of fears of violent clashes. Nevertheless, between 4,000 and 7,000 opponents came from all over France, among them politicians from the Greens (EELV) like Yannick Jadot and Sandrine Rousseau. The police prefecture had provided a massive contingent of more than 1,500 law enforcement officers with emergency vehicles and five helicopters. Their task should be to prevent the demonstrators from entering and occupying the construction site.

Injured on both sides

After a rather cheerful start to the rally near the disputed site, the demonstrators organized into three blocks, which managed to advance to the site. The members of the Gendarmerie mobile, who used tear gas and who were intended for such operations, were attacked with projectiles and, according to the official statement, allegedly also with Molotov cocktails. In videos, these clashes look like an ancient battle in an open field. The media speak of the “water war of the Deux Sèvres”.

The balance sheet of the French Minister of the Interior Gerald Darmanin is anything but glorious: in the ranks of the law enforcement officers, 61 people were injured on Saturday, some seriously. “It was not a peaceful rally, but a very violent gathering,” justified the interior minister.

On the other side, there are about as many injuries, at least five had to be taken to the hospital. The spokesman for the Bassines Non Merci! collective, Julien Le Guet, was also injured in the head. He was arrested before the demonstration with two members of the left-wing Confédération Paysanne and then released.

Before the action, Le Guet said: “It’s an idea from the last century to think that you can solve a problem as important as water supply by using nuclear energy to pump (the water) into a plastic basin. The water is already scarce here in winter, the whole thing cannot work.” He advocates alternative, solidarity-based and environmentally friendly agriculture instead of intensive maize cultivation.

The farmers’ association FNSEA, on the other hand, says that the tanks can be used to ensure the supply of food without polluting the environment. Opponents announced further protests.

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