Faced with water stress, the imperative of ecological planning

Meteorologists are unanimous: the widespread drought in the summer of 2022 is unfortunately only the beginning. While this essential resource for life is depleted, the government is content with temporary prefectural bans instead of profound transformations of our way of life. While progressive consumer pricing has certain virtues, it cannot be enough: a total review of water uses, particularly in agriculture, must be undertaken. A transformation that can only take place through the action of a strong and determined State.

Modern comfort has lulled us to the illusion of endless prosperity. For the first time in its modern history, France is experiencing, on a massive scale, the finiteness of its water resources, as evidenced by the tankers that supplied more than 100 villages with dry springs this summer of 2022. This is how, after centuries of efforts to tame water, channel it, distribute it, clean it, prevent cholera and typhus, and allow us to develop agriculture, energy and industry, we must completely reform our front to “blue gold”. It is not a right or a commodity, but a precious resource endangered by our standard of living, as well as by demographics and climate change.

And France, contrary to what the diversity of its rivers and its mild climate would suggest, is not immune: by the end of the century, summer rainfall forecasts should drop between 10 and 20% according to Meteo France; At the same time, the IPCC warns about a Mediterranean basin that runs the risk of being the point on the planet most affected by global warming. However, this is not the time for despair but for action, an action that unfortunately takes time to arrive and that seems, time and again, trapped in public impotence.

Progressive water pricing: a half solution

Claimed by NUPES, the progressive pricing of water is the solution that is going from strength to strength in the French hemicycle. It consists of a way to regulate individual uses by establishing a differentiated rate according to the number of cubic meters consumed per household. If such a measure had an effect on Dunkirk, causing a 9% drop in water consumption, the system remains largely unsatisfactory. Without a weighting measure based on household size, large families, which are also often the most modest, are directly disadvantaged. In addition, the risk that the tax is used to improve public finances instead of renovating the pipeline network is very present and is attested to by the capital gains generated by the Dunkirk experience.

The issue of water is not the prerogative of individual behavior, of simple microeconomic arbitrations to be regulated, but of a more structural problem, that is, of a whole system based on the illusion of abundance.

But the main flaw of this project is rather the liberal paradigm in which it fits. It reveals the inability to understand that the issue of water is not the prerogative of individual behavior, of simple microeconomic arbitrations to be regulated, but of a more structural problem, that is, of a whole system based on the illusion of ‘abundance’. Punishing the “great consumer” will not solve the drought that plagues France. This marginal solution, like the marginalists and theorists in microeconomics, harbors an inability to think outside the market: according to this school of thought, demand must be restrained in order to preserve supply, that is, to penalize irresponsible consumers. All consumers? Apparently not, since a golfer’s water consumption for his practice exceeds his ordinary annual consumption, continuing to irrigate the courses in the midst of the drought. The snow cannons, which have multiplied in our massifs for a decade, are another example.

Delegate to let go better

On the contrary, when the solution is ambitious, but above all more expensive, parliamentarians and politicians are not in a hurry to brandish it. Administrators of public accounts, they do not dare to shake the budgetary straitjacket while the chronic public underinvestment of the French water network appears with force. Every year, 20% of our drinking water consumption is lost due to leaks. And just like our aging nuclear fleet, almost “40% of drinking water networks are over 50 years old,” while the average life of these pipes is between 60 and 80 years. Selon une mission d’information parlementaire, nous ferions face à «un mur d’investissement», an obstacle that does not exist that seems to refuse to franchis, obligeant alors à quemander des fonds publics in provenance des «funds structurals Europeans.” A good illustration of the greatest danger to our ecological resilience: political inertia.

No private actor can assume the exploitation of this vital resource since the profit motive would run the risk of damaging the most fundamental interests of the nation.

The highly geostrategic nature of the hydraulic issue, as well as its essence of “natural monopoly”, nevertheless makes the State the key actor in its management. No private actor can assume the exploitation of this vital resource since the lure of profit would run the risk of damaging the most fundamental interests of the nation. However, there is no shortage of examples of private sector mistakes: in Vittel, groundwater is being over-exploited by Nestlé Waters, ultimately threatening the distribution of drinking water within the city. Along the same lines, a report by the Observatory of Public Water and Sanitation Services points out the more affordable nature of water operated by state control than by private delegation. While the two private water giants, Suez and Veolia, are in the process of completing their merger to form a giant monopoly, some cities have decided to remunicipalize their water management. To regain control of water resources, the State has a fundamental role to play. The means for this still need to be given.

An agri-food model to rethink

However, considering hydraulic sustainability only in terms of the drinking water needs of the French is equivalent to ignoring the destination of almost half of the water consumption: agriculture. In the grip of globalized free trade and thus subject to increasingly harsh economic competition, agriculture increasingly relies on irrigation to accelerate production growth. The proliferation of “mega-basins”, which prevent groundwater recharge and increase the effects of droughts, is the most worrying symptom of this hasty race. This is how entire crops are totally dependent and unable to withstand the slightest water stress; but it is also the way our farmers manage to make ends meet in a cut-throat global market.

However, not all crops have the same water needs. Corn arrives without blinking on the podium of the most greedy plants (25% of the water consumed in France). France is the first producing country in Europe and is the second most widespread crop in our territory. All this not to directly feed humans, but the cattle that will end up on our plates. Agriculture is subject to a demand that favors meat, to the great discontent of our water resources. This diet (and consumption more generally) is so above ground that we have to import almost four times the water we consume in national territory. Such a regime of excess, which depletes both our land, through the massive use of phytosanitary products, and our water, is simply unsustainable in the long term.

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Global warming and restoration of the water cycle: same fight

If it is imperative to better regulate the uses of water, it is also imperative to address a phenomenon that accelerates its scarcity: global warming. Due to its action, the winters are less harsh, the glaciers do not recompose and the rivers lose their flow. At the same time, the lower seasonality of the cycles, with the lengthening of the summer, reinforces the extreme situations of drought. Worse still, the increase in terrestrial temperatures accentuates the phenomenon of evapotranspiration that dries up both surface water and soil water. Since water vapor is a greenhouse gas, it is one of many feedbacks that further accelerate global warming. However, the higher the temperature, the more water vapor can be stored in the atmosphere, the more it can contribute to warming the earth: the circle is complete.

The Cartesian illusion that “man is the owner and possessor of nature” must imperatively give way to humility in the face of our limits and respect for them.

Perhaps the deregulation of the water cycle is that “black swan”, unexpected and unpredictable, which will nevertheless amplify the boiling of the climate in considerable proportions. In light of all these dynamics, it is not surprising that forecasts are flourishing that record a 10 to 25% drop in groundwater recharge in France by 2050, which will no longer allow them to supply our rivers as well as our cultures. Therefore, future food insecurity is no longer a hypothesis but a certainty.

As our rivers, like our groundwater, dry up over the years, we only realize the immensity of the challenge facing France and the world. Behind the issue of water, there is that of our production system, which can only survive because it works at overspeed, under hydraulic perfusion. The Cartesian illusion that “man is the owner and possessor of nature” must imperatively give way to humility in the face of our limits and respect for them. For this, nothing better than the rule that a proactive and sovereign State can impose.

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