On March 24, 25 and 26, more than 25,000 people gathered in the commune of Sainte-Soline, western France, as part of an international mobilisation against the construction of one of the largest water reservoirs for irrigation and other water-grabbing projects.
Faced with this unprecedented turnout, the French government decided to ban the demonstration and deploy more than 3,000 armed police to protect the construction site, which spans some 162,000 square metres (1.7 million square feet).
The use of violence against the protesters was by all accounts disproportionate. More than 200 people were injured, some quite seriously, as the police charged at the crowd and fired more than 5,000 tear gas canisters. One demonstrator is still in a coma, as of the time of this writing.
After the violent crackdown, the French government announced the “dissolution” of Les Soulèvements de la Terre (The Earth’s Uprisings), one of the organisations behind the demonstrations.
These very brutal scenes remind us of the sad reality that we are experiencing in our lands. We are witnessing the resurgence and reinforcement of authoritarianism, growing repression of environmental protests, and intensifying criminalisation of those who oppose this ongoing ecocide, as well as the capitalist, imperialist, and colonialist structures that preside over it.
But in the face of this ecological violence, a global movement is emerging that builds on solidarity to protect water rights for all.
The ‘mega’ abuse of water
In France, the construction of giant retention basins for agricultural irrigation started in the late 1990s, but has accelerated since 2010 due to the massive droughts the country has experienced as a result of climate change.
According to the French government, there are around 100 mega-basin projects for agricultural irrigation in the country. However, the associations Bassines Non Merci (Basins No Thanks) and Le Soulèvement de la Terre have mapped nearly 300 projects, many of which are still under study.
These huge craters are filled by drawing from underground water, which often leads to the degradation of water resources in the affected area. These mega-basins only benefit a small minority of big farmers who are linked to big agro-industrial interests, while small-scale farmers suffer from ever-decreasing access to the overexploited water resources.
Such plans embody a flawed policy of maintaining the current agro-industrial model at any cost, which crushes small-scale farmers and destroys ecosystems.
Although many complaints have been filed against these projects, many are still under construction. Movements opposing mega-basins have emerged in France since the 2000s, and in recent years, they have increasingly taken on a nationwide and international dimension.
‘It is not drought, it is looting’
The construction of large water reservoirs elsewhere has already demonstrated that such projects have devastating effects on the environment and local communities. For instance, in Chile, in the province of Petorca alone, eight mega-basins have been built since 1985.
They have mostly benefited the wealthy owners of large avocado farms, who use the water from the basins to irrigate a water-intensive monocrop that is almost entirely destined for export to the Global North. Meanwhile, surrounding villages have been left without water. The government has had to spend millions of dollars to buy water – often from these same avocado farms – to distribute through trucks to the local communities.
Locals have come up with an accurate description of their reality: “no es sequia, es saqueo!” (it is not drought, it is looting!). This has become a slogan often repeated at protests across Latin America, as peasants and Indigenous peoples from Chile to Mexico are fighting against the privatisation of water.
The large water reservoir projects are part of the systematic abuse of freshwater across the world. Pollution, overexploitation, commodification, and hoarding have disrupted the Earth’s water cycles. As a result, water scarcity has reached frightening proportions, affecting 40 percent of the world’s population, and causing upheaval across the planet.
These constant violations over the years have also seen pushback from communities and social movements. In 2000, residents of Cochabamba, Bolivia’s fourth-biggest city, fought the so-called “water war” against attempts to privatise their water. Since then, there have been a growing number of conflicts and social unrest, as people fight over shrinking water resources and struggle to defend their rights.
Public mobilisations and people’s water summits held over the last two decades in many parts of the world have demanded access to water and its protection, especially for impoverished and socially excluded populations. In 2010, the United Nations finally recognised the right to water as a human right.
Yet, the aggressive privatisation and financialisation of water have continued. Large corporations such as Danone, Nestle, and Coca-Cola have been pumping spring water from Indigenous lands in Mexico, the United States and Canada to sell it at high prices in plastic bottles, while local communities have struggled with access to water.
Elsewhere, in line with capitalist injunctions to “decarbonise” economies, water-intensive mining and the construction of large dams are accelerating, destroying territories still populated by peasant and Indigenous communities. In 2020, water was even listed on the stock exchange in the US.
Global solidarity on water rights
In the face of this ecocidal offensive on water, land, and our livelihoods, people involved in the struggle for water are not only growing in number but also connecting across the globe.
In late March, some of us travelled far to join local activists, peasants, and farmers in their protest against France’s mega-basins in Sainte-Soline. Included in this crowd were activists from Chile fighting against the destruction of our ecosystems by authoritarian neoliberalism; activists from Mali fighting against land grabs; Kurdish activists opposing the relentless water war waged by Turkey; Yukpa Indigenous activists from Abya Yala and Mohawk activists from Turtle Island fighting for the self-determination of our nations in the face of a colonial and extractivist system; and activists from the Lakota Nation and the social centres of Northeast Italy.
No government can ignore global solidarity; no government can dissolve the peoples’ water movement, a vital revolt that grows and resonates across borders and languages.
This is why we, actors of the struggle for life, peasants, human rights and environmental defenders, public figures, trade unions, collectives, and organisations from different continents, call for massive international support for the struggle for water and against mega-basins in France.
We call on people to denounce the French government’s repression of social and environmental movements. We also call for respect for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas (UNDROP).
Our support extends to all those who are struggling around the world against water grabbing, privatisation, and pollution, and for the fair sharing and protection of water as an inalienable common good.
From the water that flows through our veins, the rivers of the watersheds that sustain our lands and that connect our geographies, we call for the strengthening of internationalist alliances to defend water, land, and the commons that sustain life. In the face of all forms of repression and authoritarianism, our solidarity is like flowing water: it brings life and freedom and knows no borders.
This article by Morgan Ody (La Via Campesina), Masa Koné and Juan Pablo Guttierez first appeared on Al Jaazeera on the 3rd of May 2023.