How The Agricultural World Is Facing The Water Challenge

With July recorded as the driest month since 1959 in France, farmers — who make up half of water consumption in the country — face a problematic water shortage. The agricultural world is now working on solutions to better manage this precious resource.

A view from above in Correze
Aurélie Loek

Frank Laborde says he needs water right now. "If we don't have it, we risk reliving the drought of 2003," he says, referring to the violent, record-breaking heatwave that gripped France in the summer of that year, causing 14,802 deaths. "My farm has been feeling the economic effects of the drought for about 10 years."

Laborde is an unlikely victim of insufficient rainfall. His corn-producing farm is located at the foot of the Pyrenees, the wettest department of France in 2019. He should have little to complain about. "It rains twice as much as in Brittany," he admits.

Yet summer droughts have hit farms here too, as elsewhere in France. Since the start of the summer, a whopping 72 of the country's 96 departments in Europe introduced water restriction measures. Authorities issued a total of 146 decrees, ranging from incentives to save water to bans on non-priority uses, including agriculture. This poses a difficult challenge for the industry, given that both plants and livestock suffer badly from the heat.

"The northern half of France, for example, faces a climate deficit of 300-380 millimeters," says Patrick Bertuzzi, the director of Agroclim, a unit of the National Institute of Agronomic Research. "That means that these regions lack 300-to-380 meters of water per square meter of soil since the beginning of April. It's a record-low," he says.

Droughts and heatwaves affect crop yields, in the summer as in other seasons: while autumn or spring droughts used to be rare in the past, they are becoming increasingly common. Water has been a problem for farmers for years now and with global warming, it's likely to only get worse.

"The problem is not so much a decrease in rainfall, but its distribution during the year," says Joël Limouzin, head of climate issues at the National Federation of Farmers' Unions. Limouzin points to the heavy winter rains that usually replenish water tables. Even during droughts, the Geological and Mining Research Office observes that the level of water refilling usually remains satisfactory in the area. Scientists say that the shortage mostly concerns surface soils.

Limouzin is also a farmer in the Vendée, a department of central Western France. He too faces water shortages during droughts, and is a strong advocate of a structural solution: hillside reservoirs. These are open-air basins dug into the ground to store water during heavy rainfall. For Limouzin, they would be the primary solution for periods of water shortage. On his farm, where he works with five other partners, two reservoirs have been set up. This year, they are saving him from the drought.

But environmental associations and hydrogeologists criticise this solution, saying it can change the water cycle, the open-surface reservoirs that favor the evaporation of stored water, as well as areas where the reservoirs are installed.

My farm has been feeling the economic effects of the drought for about 10 years.

Despite these negative aspects, Agroclim director Bertuzzi says that hill dams are acceptable transitional solutions, "provided that there is a consultation with the various water management partners." Limouzin is open to this conversation. "Dialogue between different territorial actors is necessary," he says, "and we are ready to integrate the environmental associations if they are also part of the dialogue."

"However, hillside reservoirs should not prevent farmers from reducing their water consumption anyway," says Bertuzzi. Agriculture is a significant water consumer, especially in the summer. And it's the sector most affected by the increasingly recurring droughts. Facing more difficult and uncertain conditions, "farmers suffer more than they adapt," Bertuzzi says.

More sustainable practices already exist. Scientists are experimenting with plant genetics to select more resistant varieties. Bertuzzi says that crop diversification can also be important, and promotes a shift in the agricultural calendar. Laborde is already applying this strategy: "At home, we rarely run out of water until about July 10. So, today we sow much earlier, around April 1, so that pollination can take place at the end of June, when, statistically, there is still water in the soil."

Technology too can help farmers reduce their water consumption. To avoid waste, drip and in-ground irrigation systems can be developed for specific crops. Water probes can indicate the best times to irrigate. "Some 15 or 20 years ago, we used 3,500 cubic meters of water per hectare of corn," Limouzin says. "Today, we use about 1,800 cubic meters for the same yields."

Corn is one of the most criticized crops for its high water consumption and there is a growing movement to promote less water-consuming cereals. Laborde says this is a misconception: "Corn is the plant that makes the best use of water," he says. "It consumes more water than, for example, rapeseed, but rapeseed produces three tons per hectare and corn produces 10 tons." Bertuzzi says, "The problem with maize is that it needs water when there is the least water." However, he does not rule out the possibility that future droughts and heatwaves will raise the question of maintenance: "It will all depend on how the situation develops."

These new practices are not enough for Bertuzzi, who says repeated droughts will eventually lead to a reduction in river water levels and water tables. To establish more resilient agriculture in a context of water reduction, he calls on farmers to make better use of biodiversity and soil life. He believes in following the principles of conservation agriculture, agroecology and agroforestry. "Soils must be regenerated and their organic status improved to promote carbon storage," he says.

Water has been a problem for farmers for years now and with global warming, it's likely to only get worse.

To preserve the soil, Limouzin has stopped ploughing his farm, a technique that he believes will continue on nearly 60% of farms. Corn producer Franck Laborde agrees with this assessment but is more hesitant in practice. "We're working on it, but adding organic matter to the soil, for example, is a long-term project," he says. "My cash flow doesn't allow me to plan ahead so much." Bertuzzi regrets this lack of a long-term vision: "The adoption of a few practices does not yet lead to questioning the whole system. But at some point it will, necessarily."

Because it's an emergency. At Agroclim, Bertuzzi and his team make projections on the effects of climate on agriculture. He says that after 2040 and 2050, "there is great uncertainty. If we continue with the current laissez-faire approach, agricultural landscapes will change. We are moving towards an increasing Mediterraneanization of the climate."

It isn't an optimistic outlook, yet this scientist still hopes that effective decisions will be taken. "With the acceleration of droughts, hopefully we'll see an acceleration of action."

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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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