They could be renamed the “basins of anger”. The new demonstration against these water tanks is placed under high security, this Saturday, March 25 in Deux-Sèvres. Up to 10,000 people are expected around Sainte-Soline, where one of these reservoirs dedicated to agricultural irrigation is under construction. The site, already at the center of a rally last October, is protected by a double row of fence two meters high, and its access defended by roadblocks. More than 3,000 security forces were mobilized by the authorities – who banned the demonstration. They expect the presence of 1,500 “violent activists”. Clashes quickly broke out and at least thirty people were injured among the gendarmes and the demonstrators, according to an initial assessment.
“The goal is to approach and surround the basin to stop the construction site,” a member of the Earth Uprisings collective told AFP at the start of the rally. Because for two years, these “substitute reservoirs” have become the symbol of a fight against “the monopolization of water by the agro-industry”, according to the opponents of the projects.
The protest against these “mega-basins” is not new. In Sainte-Soline as in most of the other territories concerned. It was already visible through some local activists as early as February 2017, the date of the start of the public inquiry into the creation of 19 reservoirs – a number that will be revised downwards – called “substitution” and dedicated to irrigation in the basin of the Sèvre Niortaise and the Mignon. Without however acquiring a national scope.
But the anger grew in a few years, until it broke out for the first time in Sainte-Soline, last October, with clashes between opponents and the police. Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin then spoke of a “very violent rally” – 61 gendarmes were injured, “including 22 seriously” – and denounced “ecoterrorism” by some of the demonstrators. This has not slowed the progress of similar projects: at the beginning of November, a water reservoir project was validated in Vienne, a neighboring department of Deux-Sèvres. Their storage capacity amounts to nearly 9 million cubic meters of water. Even more so than in Saint-Soline, where construction began in early October.
“Grabbing” of water or survival of farms
Since then, the basins of Sainte-Soline and Mauzé-sur-le-Mignon – the latter being already in operation – have become sources of strong tension. They are both part of a set of 16 reservoirs, with a total capacity of about six million cubic meters. These constructions are part of a project carried out since 2018 by a cooperative of 450 farmers, and supported by the State. Total cost: 76 million euros, 70% financed by public funds in exchange for the adoption of agroecological practices by the beneficiaries.
The supporters of the project, the farmers, make it a condition for the survival of farms in the face of the threat of recurring droughts. In their view, these reservoirs represent a solution for ensuring yields. Opponents denounce them, a “grabbing” of water by “agro-industry” at the time of climate change. They are calling for a moratorium on their constructions to launch “a real territorial project” on “water sharing”. “One of the questions is knowing who is legitimate to organize the campaign. Culturally, we have always considered that it was the agricultural world, because they were also more numerous. But this is less and less true. Today today, we have a peri-urban society which is spread out in the countryside”, analyzes the sociologist Jean Viard.
In total, a hundred “basins” are planned, even if no precise count exists at the national level. About fifty are registered in Poitou-Charentes. The department of Deux-Sèvres, the second largest wetland in France, has thus become the epicenter of a protest that now goes beyond the territory concerned. Evidenced by the presence of foreign activists from Italy, Germany, Switzerland, comings that illustrate the existing international exchanges within the environmental movements. In recent years, actions have become more frequent and received a mixed reception. While some applaud these acts of civil disobedience, their detractors denounce the radical nature of the fight. For the sociologist, Jean Viard, “the problem is the level of violence in a society where the other is an enemy. We no longer have a clearly defined path for the survival of humanity and this increases the violence The problem is our inability to have a democratic debate.”
“How to save nature”
Moreover, this demonstration against “mega-basins” comes a few days after the publication of the latest IPCC report on the inadequacy of the measures taken to reduce global warming. To fight against this phenomenon, ideological clashes should take place on the method to be used, according to Jean Viard. “The question is also how to save nature. On the one hand there are those who want to save agriculture, because it captures a lot of carbon, and others who say that we have to go back to state of nature […] We are in a period where we have to reinvent politics in this ecological world.
To win their case, the activists are also chaining legal action. And have obtained numerous authorization cancellations. Last May, five similar water reservoirs, at the heart of numerous demonstrations in Charente-Maritime and Deux-Sèvres, were banned by the Administrative Court of Appeal of Bordeaux due to insufficient impact studies. The same court has yet to rule on the fate of Sainte-Soline as well as that of the fifteen other “mega-basins” planned by the Societe cooperative anonyme de l’eau des Deux-Sèvres, Coop 79. Two other proceedings against interprefectural orders amended in 2020 and March 2022 are also in progress. The first will be judged by the administrative court of Poitiers, on March 28.