Droughts are a threat to peace in Europe – Why we need democratic water management in the EU

Droughts will become a new reality in Europe as climate change is in full swing. On the other extreme, floods swept across Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands last year. This is why European water management must be at the centre of our fight against the climate crisis, says the Greens/EFA MEP Benoît Biteau.

“If you see me, weep”. These words are carved into the “Hunger Stone” from 1616, near Decin in the Czech Republic. It was fully under water for decades. Now it is clearly visible, witness to the low water level in the Elbe River. As if we needed another prophetic call to wake us up. According to the Global Drought Observatory, Europe is facing its worst drought in at least 500 years.

I come from Charente-Maritime in the South-West of France. As a farmer living in this territory of marshes, wetlands and rivers, I have witnessed a silent spring (though not the same one as described by Rachel Carson in 1962 in her ground-breaking book which shaped the US environmental movement). Of course, the warbling of birds has disappeared too, but I’m talking about the vanishing of that whispery swash of water. First, the farmers – encouraged by the French government – drained the wetlands to sow corn. Then they pumped the rivers and used ground water to water their crops. Now the corn cannot even grow due to the droughts all over Europe and the rivers are gone. This is the case all over Europe: glaciers are collapsing, seawater is flowing into freshwater riverbeds, and cities are facing water shortages.

The right to water – Farmers, industry and consumers are fighting over a scarce resource

Climate change is here and it is a threat to our fundamental rights. The UN has even recognised the right to water as a fundamental human right. The UN even acknowledges that this right forms the basis of all other rights. The droughts in Europe are the pillars of our existence. Now this pillar is in danger and we can feel it. When existential threats arise, the spectre of conflict looms. Either locally, between farmers, industries and citizens, or between countries.

In my home region, an open conflict over water is now pitting some farmers, environmental associations and concerned citizens against farmers using ground water. The French State never played its role of mediator. It has continuously backed those irrigation farmers, despite their disregard of its own laws and court decisions. Five existing agricultural reservoirs have been ruled illegal. Yet, the French authorities are taking no action to fix the situation, leading to radical action by citizens’ collectives. This, in turn, triggers the anger of irrigation farmers.

Droughts in Europe – Will we face more water struggles on a European level?

Here in Europe, home to the highest number of shared river basins in the world, we could face many water conflicts like this. With more and more droughts, disputes over water use are now about survival. The struggle between Portugal and Spain in 2019 is a damning example.

All watercourses that flow into Portugal have their sources in Spain. The Convention of Albufeira, in which Spain commits to supply a certain amount of water to Portugal, binds the two countries. In 2019, the Iberian peninsula faced a terrible drought, which led to diplomatic tension between the two parties on the proper application of the Convention. At this stage, fortunately, no harm was done. But it should be a wake-up call that climate change and the increasing droughts will worsen resource scarcity.

The European Union was built on the promise of peace. Though the EU faces many criticisms, it has not yet failed on that initial promise. However, times are changing and new challenges to peace arise. We have to strengthen the democratic management of our common resources, such as water, at European level.

Water as a peace projectThe European Union needs to manage our water democratically now

Rivers and lakes do not stop at borders. European water laws are totally neglecting the management of water quantity and water allocation when it flows between several countries. In fact, European legislation does not address the quantity of the water in our rivers and lakes. This void could fuel political tension among EU countries and citizens. It must now be fixed to brave the new climate reality that is upon us.

We not only need more fire fighters, we need to prevent fires from happening

This crisis is not circumstantial. It is structural. The time has come for global thinking. No technological fix can solve the situation; some might even make the situation worse. We need a true paradigm shift in our vision of natural resources – from extractivist to regenerative. To remain a peacekeeper, not only should the EU have more fire brigades, to extinguish forest fires. The EU must become an environmental champion, to prevent those from happening. Sustainable agriculture and a strong EU water management legislation could be the starting point.

Agroecology has a great potential to start a virtuous circle of ecosystem restoration.  It’s our best ally in climate change mitigation and adaptation. European policies are not yet in line with these challenges. Events of this summer, droughts in Europe and floods in Pakistan, should flow into our political action. Let’s make water the source of a renewed European peace project.

Follow our campaign on ‘Food that’s good for people and planet‘ or watch Benoît Biteau’s interview about the challenges of European agroecocology with director Frédéric Tellier and actrice Emmanuelle Bercot below.