Chapter 10. The collective management approach for irrigation in France1

This chapter reviews the case of groundwater allocation for irrigation in France, where the government has instituted collective management bodies to allow water users to take on the task of allocating a fixed abstraction limit among themselves. The case documents the key features of the approach as well as numerous implementation challenges.


Collective management bodies as an attempt to reduce over-exploitation of groundwater

France is ranked as the 11th largest user of absolute volumes of groundwater among OECD countries. As of 2013, 63% percent of abstracted groundwater is used for urban purposes, 20% for agriculture and 17% for industry (OECD, 2015). The ownership of groundwater is linked to property ownership; however, the use of groundwater is regulated by the government, and entitlements are required for use. The nature of groundwater entitlements depends on whether or not a basin is classified as a zone de repartition d’eau (ZRE) (BRGM, 2016). Introduced in 1994, ZREs are zones where the state has the mandate to exercise a stricter allocation of water resources, due to the structural deficiency of water supply as compared to demand.

Years after the introduction of ZREs, the water-balance remained over-exploited many places across the country. In response to this pressure and in order to meet aims under the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD), the 2006 Water Law, La Loi sur l’Eau et les Milieux Aquatiques (LEMA) introduced a new collective model for the allocation of surface and groundwater resources for irrigation purposes: les organismes uniques de gestion collective (OUGCs, or collective management bodies) (Loubier and Polge, 2016; Di Franco, 2016). The implementation of these collective management bodies is mandatory in basins that are classified as ZREs, albeit strongly recommended also in other basins. Most of the current collective management bodies were implemented in 2012 or later (Figureau et al., 2012).

An OUGC can best be described as a function or a task, rather than a body. This function can be carried out by a number of different groups or institutions, including agricultural chambers, groups of local irrigators, owners of land used for irrigation, local legal groups or territorial associations. Those wishing to obtain the OUGC mandate apply to the Prefecture, which appoints the most suitable group in collaboration with the local Water Agency and agricultural chamber. The majority of existing OUGCs are run by agricultural chambers, while a few are operated by irrigators’ unions (BRGM, 2016; Di Franco, 2016; Figureau et al., 2012). The body appointed as OUGC is initially given a time-bound mandate (three to five years), with the possibility of extension for an unlimited period of time (Garin, 2016).

The OUGCs are in charge of collecting water withdrawal requests from irrigating farmers in a defined water apportionment zone (e.g. a basin), and, based on these requests, propose annual plans for the allocation of the total abstractable volume of water among the irrigators. The Prefecture determines the total abstractable volume of water for the local agricultural sector based on a nationally-defined minimum water flow (BRGM, 2016; Patrice et al., 2013; Loubier and Polge, 2016; Rinaudo and Hérivaux, 2014). In addition, the OUGCs develop multi-annual plans projecting the distribution of water for irrigation over a period of up to 15 years. Both plans are provided to the Prefecture, which, with or without making amendments, approves the plans. It is important to note that the mission of the OUGCs is only to prepare the decisions of the Prefecture, which remains the ultimate authority with regards to allocation of water (Loubier and Polge, 2016).

Before the creation of the OUGCs, groundwater in ZREs was allocated through a system of permanent, individual abstraction quotas. Irrigators could either request abstraction volumes directly from the Prefecture, or place their request with the agricultural chamber, which subsequently would forward a collective demand to the Prefecture. Outside of the ZREs, there were no abstraction quotas, and entitlements were permanent (Di Franco, 2016; BRGM, 2016). The OUGCs now have monopoly with regards to receiving and managing abstraction requests. This implies that farmers have an obligation to inform the OUGC about their abstraction needs, within a date defined by the OUGC (Loubier and Polge, 2016).

Modalities of representation may hinder irrigating farmers’ influence

Representation and decision-making procedures within the OUGCs depend on, and are inherited from, the structures of the body exercising the OUGC task. This implies that the length of time during which each member of the OUGC remains in his or her position depends on the electoral characteristics of the structure assuming the role of the OUGC. For example, agricultural chambers organise elections for all representatives every six years, leading to a replacement of the people in the OUGC at the same interval (MEEM, 2016; Di Franco, 2016). Further, this means that there is no guarantee that the local irrigators are represented in the OUGC. An agricultural chamber may represent farmers of diverse kinds – not only irrigating farmers - and may manage a territory that is overlapping with, rather than identical to, that of the OUGC. As a result, it is possible that irrigating farmers from the area managed by the OUGC are not be represented in the general assembly, which makes the decisions regarding allocation criteria and repartition plans for the OUGC.

In practice, however, most OUGCs have established consultative committees that include irrigators. The custom is that these committees propose a set of allocation criteria as well as plans for repartition of water to the general assembly, which generally respect these propositions when making decisions (Loubier and Polge, 2016; Di Franco, 2016; Garin, 2016; Rinaudo and Hérivaux, 2014). Nevertheless, critics argue that the absence of a standard for representation and decision-making procedures in OUGCs may lead to internal and external conflicts over how decisions on water allocation are taken as well as potentially weaken channels of influence for irrigating farmers and the internal legitimacy of the OUGCs (Patrice et al., 2013; Di Franco, 2016; Rinaudo and Hérivaux, 2014).

Several aspects of the allocation regime provoke debate

Once established, the OUGCs develop a set of internal rules that govern the internal functioning of the OUGC as well as the relations between the OUGC and the irrigating farmers in the water apportionment zone. These rules dictate the representation within the OUGC, its internal organisation (e.g. sub-committees, the modalities of consultative committees), the type of information irrigators have to provide to the OUGC and when, rules and criteria for water allocation, procedures for management of conflicts, reactions to rule violations, the internal budget and rules for how to fix a potential fee to be paid by irrigators (Loubier and Polge, 2016; MEEM, 2016; Rinaudo and Hérivaux, 2014). An inter-organisational working group, including members from the French Permanent Assembly of Agricultural Chambers and three national irrigators’ unions, has developed a guiding document for OUGCs seeking to establish their internal rules. The document is not prescriptive, but provides best practices as well as raises key issues that should be taken into consideration (Rinaudo and Hérivaux, 2014).

When a new OUGC is established, the local Water Agencies, which are financed by user charges on water, subsidise up to 50% of its staff costs, with a progressive decline over the first five years. After that, the OUGCs are expected to be financially independent with a balanced budget, separated from the general budget of the institution assuming the role of the OUGC. In accordance with Decree 2012-84, the OUGCs are entitled to implement irrigator charges in order to generate revenues (Garin, 2016; Di Franco, 2016; Rinaudo and Hérivaux, 2014). The OUGCs are free to design the charges as they see fit. For example, the charge may consist of a fixed and a variable fee, with the variable portion determined by a number of different parameters. Critics point out that the choice of these parameters can create a number of challenging trade-offs and conflicts (Rinaudo and Hérivaux, 2014). Furthermore, observers emphasise that the legislation does not clearly define the judicial relation between farmers and the OUGCs; hence, raising questions about the basis for imposing charges (Loubier and Polge, 2016; Figureau et al., 2012). Surveys show that OUGCs have struggled to enforce irrigators’ fees. Consequently, several OUGCs have found it difficult to cover their costs.

Each OUGC is free to define its own allocation criteria. This can be a highly politicised task, as well as a source of conflict, as it defines which farmers and what farming practices will be prioritised over others. The aspects and principles on which the allocation criteria can be based include historical water use, types of crops, cultivation techniques, soil quality, the economic viability or the environmental impact of cultivation activities, the size of the irrigated surface, and the age of the farmer. For example, whether young, or new, farmers, should be given priority over old ones, and whether those fields needing the most water should be prioritised, or those farmers using water the most efficiently, are some of the many challenging questions that OUGCs must address when determining the allocation criteria. When defining the criteria, all OUGCs have to respect the principle of equity between users. This implies that similar users are entitled to similar – equal - treatment. Nonetheless, the OUGCs can easily prevent this principle from becoming an obstacle to their own allocation criteria. For example, by defining users into different categories, based on their own criteria, the OUGCs can justify that irrigators, who initially could appear to be alike, are treated differently with regards to water allocation (Loubier and Polge, 2016; Figureau et al., 2012; Rinaudo and Hérivaux, 2014).

The Prefecture has the right to additionally restrict the total abstractable volume due to droughts or other conditions putting increased pressure on water resources2. The OUGCs are in charge of proposing a modified version of the allocation criteria, also called a set of rules for crisis management, allowing for the modification of annual repartition plans when this occurs (Loubier and Polge, 2016; Rinaudo and Hérivaux, 2014). However, critics state that the legislation remains unclear with regards to how the allocation criteria should be altered in times of restriction, as compared to under normal circumstances (Patrice et al., 2013).

The OUGCs are not mandated to monitor farmers’ compliance with the repartition plans; this role is assumed by the Prefecture, the Office National de l’Eau et des Milieux Aquatiques along with the Directions départmentales des Territoires (Loubier and Polge, 2016; Di Franco, 2016; Rinaudo and Hérivaux, 2014; Figureau et al., 2012). However, the legislation states that the OUGCs are entitled to take account of non-compliance. This creates ambiguity with regards to the juridical grounds on which the OUGCs can gather information about compliance, create acceptance for its allocation principles and potentially impose sanctions (Patrice et al., 2013). Questions also remain as to whether potential sanctions should apply in cases where single farmers have exceeded their authorised volume, or only when the total abstractable volume has been exceeded (Loubier and Polge, 2016).

Despite the lack of a clear mandate, various OUGCs have envisaged ways of sanctioning non-compliant farmers, including through reducing their abstraction volumes (Polge and Loubier, 2016). Some of these sanctioning mechanisms have been strongly contested, both because of their potential implications for cultivation and because it remains debatable whether the OUGCs should interfere in cases of non-compliance at all. Many farmers, who for a number of reasons are opposed to the allocation plans developed by the OUGCs in the first place (notably the irrigators’ unions) are particularly at odds with the idea of having the OUGC imposing sanctions. The conflictual relationship between irrigators’ unions and agricultural chambers in many parts of France, due to divergent interests, has a long history. For example, agricultural chambers may face criticism by the irrigators’ unions when they carry out public administrative tasks (MEEM, 2016). Consequently, the members of the OUGCs often find it challenging to be in charge of enforcing sanctions (BRGM, 2016). OUGCs were established with the aim that allocation criteria would be developed in a manner considered legitimate by most farmers and thus, result in the emergence of a self-managed system, reducing the need for sanctions and monitoring. However, the conflictual relations between many OUGCs and the irrigators has prevented this from materialising (Patrice et al., 2013).

Lessons learned

As the implementation of OUGCs is a very recent development, and yet has to take place in some areas, it would be premature to attempt a comprehensive assessment of their functioning. However, some key observations can be made at this early stage. The French government has made substantial efforts to strengthen the conservation and allocation of national water resources through the introduction of OUGCs. The OUGCs were developed with the intention of becoming accountability mechanisms for the management of groundwater allocation at local scale, often basin scale (see Health Check #1, Part I). In principle, the introduction of the OUGCs allows for the adjustment and enforcement of the abstraction limits defined by the prefectures (see Health Check #4, Part I). Furthermore, it has enabled the development of allocation criteria specific to crisis management, ensuring that there are adequate arrangements in place for dealing with exceptional circumstances (see Health Check #6, Part I). In principle, the OUGCs also allow for water users to reallocate water among themselves as a means to improve the allocative efficiency of the regime (see Health Check #14, Part I), as well as to make decisions regarding processes for dealing with new entrants, increasing or varying entitlements (see Health Check #7, Part I).

Nevertheless, in practice, their implementation has, so far, sparked strong controversy due to the conflictual relations between those exercising the tasks of the OUGCs and those that are meant to benefit from them, as well as decision-making procedures which seem to limit the influence of some stakeholders. Furthermore, farmers have notably reacted to the fact that their individual, permanent water entitlements have been replaced by a collective quota. Many irrigators perceive this as an expropriation, and assert that the OUGCs alter historical allocation criteria (Rinaudo and Hérivaux, 2014). The lack of clarity regarding key aspects in the legislation, including with regards to sanctioning and the judicial relation between the OUGCs and the farmers, leads to further lack of support of the collective management model. Several farmers view the OUGCs, which oblige them to respect rules defined by the OUGC, potentially including paying fees, as an arrangement offering few advantages (Loubier and Polge, 2016; Patrice et al., 2013).

In order to ease farmers’ resistance to the OUGCs, the latter could benefit from strengthening their communication, so as to explain to the irrigators why the total abstractable volume has been restricted. Many irrigators claim that they do not understand the rationale behind the decline in abstraction volumes (Di Franco, 2016). According to the Ministry of Environment, farmers are reluctant to recognise the scarce nature of water resources, thus resist reductions in abstraction quotas, as well as the OUGCs (MEEM, 2016; Di Franco, 2016). The success of French policies for conservation of water for irrigation depends on a change in farmers’ views; a key objective should be to convince farmers that a restriction of aggregate abstraction volumes eventually will offer advantages by reducing the risk of water shortage in the long-term (Rinaudo and Hérivaux, 2014).

While the introduction of OUGCs reflects the government’s willingness to delegate decision-making power to farmers, critics argue that the OUGCs have not been endowed with any actual power, as the government still is in charge of appointing the members of the management bodies, determining the total abstractable volume of water, and approving the annual repartition plans (Figureau et al., 2014; Patrice et al., 2013). The effectiveness of the OUGCs could be potentially enhanced by developing a stronger legal framework for the OUGCs, notably with regards to representation and decision-making procedures. Nevertheless, it is too early to draw final conclusions on the functioning and impact of the OUGCs given that the process of implementation still is ongoing.


Bureau de recherches géologiques et minières (BRGM) (2016), personal correspondence with Coordinator of Research Program on Water & Environmental Economics, Jean-Daniel Rinaudo.

Di Franco, F. (2016), The French Permanent Assembly of Agricultural Chambers, personal correspondence.

Figureau, A.G. et al. (2012), “Gestion quantitative de l’eau d’irrigation en France : Bilan de l’application de la loi sur l’eau et les milieux aquatiques de 2006”, [Quantitative management of irrigation water in France: Assessment of the application of the Water and Aquatic Environment Act 2006], (accessed 12 August 2016).

Garin, P. (2016), Member of the Research Collective Gestion de l’Eau, Acteurs, Usages, personal correspondence.

Loubier, M. and S. Polge (2016), “Étude sur les règlements intérieurs des Organismes Uniques de Gestion Collective et sur les critères d’allocation de la ressource en eau”, [Study on the rules of procedure of the Single Collective Management Organisations and on the criteria for the allocation of water resources], ONEMA and IRSTEA, 2013-15.

Ministry of Environment, Energy and the Sea in France (MEEM) (2016), personal correspondence with Head of the Mission on Water and Aquatic Environments, Jérémy Devaux and colleagues.

OECD (2015), “Policies to manage agricultural groundwater use: France”, Country profile, (accessed 16 July 2016).

Patrice, G., L. Sébastien and C. Myriam (2013), “Irrigation individuelle – irrigation collective : état des lieux et contraintes”, [Individual irrigation – collective irrigation : state of play and constraints], Sciences Eaux & Territoires, Vol. 2(11), pp. 86-89, (accessed 11 July 2016).

Rinaudo, J.D. and C. Hérivaux (2014), “Quels instruments pour une gestion collective des prélèvements individuels en eau pour l’irrigation ? ”, [Which instruments for collective management of individual water withdrawals for irrigation ?], synthesis of the ONEMA workshop in Paris, 10 February 2014.


← 1. This document and any map included herein are without prejudice to the status of or sovereignty over any territory, to the delimitation of international frontiers and boundaries and to the name of any territory, city or area.

← 2. If the intervention to restrict the total abstractable volume occurs more frequently than during 2 years out of a 10 year period, it is necessary to revise the overall authorisation of the OUGC as it would have been proven to have erred in determining the overall authorisation.