Water restrictions, dry rivers, suffering groundwater: this summer again, France is experiencing an unprecedented drought. Is this a surprise for you?
No not at all. We had another dry winter, more than 60% of the groundwater could not recharge normally. However, they are the ones that feed the rivers in the summer. What I find very worrying is the state of the heads of watersheds, these territories of springs and wetlands essential for water resources. The latest inventory from the French Office for Biodiversity shows that there are even more small dry streams than last year. This indicates that long droughts are setting in, causing great damage to living beings and to available water.
What effect is climate change having on our resources?
It disrupts the water cycle by accelerating evapotranspiration. Each additional degree of temperature corresponds to a 7% increase in water vapor in the atmosphere. If it is more present in the air, it is less so in soils and groundwater. This is where we need it for our water security. We humans have developed with the idea that water is inexhaustible, because it is always in constant supply on Earth. Except that, when it circulates in the form of vapor and not of liquid, it does not have the same consequences…
You co-lead the national network of lawyers from France Nature Environnement (FNE). What is the concrete use of the law to defend this common good?
It is an instrument for sharing and settling disputes. Water has long been a subject of conflict between users. The word “rival” comes from “riparian”! From 1964, the law also served to arbitrate what human uses should leave to the natural environment. But he very poorly anticipated the impact of climate change on the resource. For ten years, my fight has aimed to change this. For example, some prefects regularly grant volumes of withdrawals for irrigation much higher than scientific recommendations and what the law authorizes. In July, in the Adour basin, FNE again seized the administrative court of Pau to denounce this illegal practice which maintains a suicidal agricultural model, oriented towards the cultivation of corn. Under pressure in particular from the FNSEA (the main agricultural union, editor’s note), the state is breaking its own rules.
Agriculture still needs water, right?
More than 90% of agricultural land is not irrigated, but those that are represent 58% of total water consumption. Among the latter, it is becoming vital to favor crops that are directly food for humans and anchored in the territory, such as fruits and vegetables. However, currently, irrigation is mainly used to increase cereal yields. The tensions in New Aquitaine around the basins devoted to irrigation can be explained in particular because a considerable part of the cereals produced thanks to them are intended for financially very attractive world markets. In 2022, the port of La Rochelle saw the volume of cereals exported increase by 50%! If agriculture were centered on supplying the territory, the water would remain there instead of being exported… Our agricultural model must change, in connection of course with the content of our plate.
You are a member of a secular Franciscan fraternity. What role does Saint Francis of Assisi play in your commitment?
A great role, as patron of environmentalists! I really like this verse from his Canticle of the Creatures: “Praise be to you, my Lord, for Sister Water who is very useful and very humble, precious and chaste.” Useful, because water is a resource. Humble, because it is what always sinks to the lowest. Precious, because it is essential to life. And chaste, because it cannot be appropriated. In water law, this notion is central. Indeed, appropriating water, by a reservoir, a dam or a basin proves harmful to its cycle. A stream, it runs! When we want to stop the water, we pay the consequences.
The water is free?
Yes, it is free, without borders. To use an expression very present in the encyclical of Pope Francis Laudato si’, “everything is linked” by water: upstream and downstream, the underground and the sky, the living between them. We are connected by the use of this same vital resource.
Everything is linked by water, but it also divides…
Yes, because the water cycle is very complex to understand. For example, we hear a lot in the agricultural community: “All this water that goes to the sea is lost, it must be recovered in winter.” We cannot reduce water to our human needs, that which goes to the sea is not lost, it ensures the proper functioning of the ecosystems on which we depend. Seeking to appropriate water to the detriment of natural environments is counterproductive because it deprives us of the conditions for its renewal.
Water is a sacramental symbol for Christians. It is also central in places of pilgrimage such as Lourdes. Do you think about this dimension when you defend it?
Rediscovering proximity to living waterways is much more than an ecological issue. I am lucky to have a theme of commitment for which the word of God offers many insights! The number of times water is mentioned in the Bible impresses me, from the psalms to the encounter of Christ with the Samaritan… I am convinced that if the water disappears around us, summer in the rivers for example, we will also impoverish ourselves internally. How then to understand the force of Psalm 1, according to which the man happy in God is “like a tree planted by a stream, which bears fruit in its time, and its foliage never dies”? We were in a culture of abundance, we must enter a culture of scarcity to keep a livable world. Water is an essential common good. Setting limits on our own uses is a major cultural shift. And therefore a spiritual issue.
1970 Born in Nantes (Loire-Atlantique).
1983 Discovery of Saint Francis of Assisi through a theater troupe.
1988-1998 Studies at IEP Grenoble, then DESS in environment and urban planning, followed by doctoral work on water law.
1998 Beginning of his involvement in a member association of the France Nature environment federation (FNE).
2007 Entry into the FNE legal network.
2010 Commitment to the Secular Franciscan Fraternity. Appointment to the Economic, Social and Environmental Council to represent FNE (until 2021).
Since 2020 Appointment as FNE representative on the National Water Committee.