Reclaiming public water – the Paris case

Inclusive Economy02 Nov 2011Anne Le Strat

Since the first of January 2010, the water services of Paris have been provided by a single public operator, Eau de Paris. The old public-private company has been transformed into a public body, whose mission is to produce, transport, distribute and bill for water. All the various professions and operational aspects of the service have been brought together, which means that consumers now deal with a single structure. Eau de Paris is a public body that belongs to the municipality of Paris. It is both an independent legal entity, has its own budget, and reports to the municipality. Previously, profits were partially used to cover other activities of the private groups and strengthen their profit margins. This money is now totally reinvested in the water services.

Returning to a public system for the provision of water services in Paris makes a significant break with the commercial showcase of French multinationals in the water sector. The representatives of Suez and Veolia have actually explicitly admitted as much: losing the Paris market has had negative financial impacts, and has hurt their public image even more than their balance sheet. Throughout the world, these companies showcased the management of water services in Paris. They can no longer do this. They complained that this decision might have negative knock-on effects on their international market share. I believe, as an elected town councillor, that my duty is to defend good management for the Parisian consumers and not to help multinationals to gain increased access to global markets.

At the international level, the Parisian experience interests many actors, from Latin America to South-East Asia; they are looking into the motivation and reasons for the remunicipalisation. Many cities and even States are showing an increased interest in a return to public management or simply to strengthen existing public management. The Paris example demonstrates that it is indeed possible for Local Authorities to regain control of their water supplies; and what worked for the French capital can work elsewhere, even if the conditions for success obviously vary from one context to another. Cochabamba isn’t Paris, but the levers are the same: political and citizens’ determination to have collective public management of the water supply.

Aqua Publica Europa is a network of European public operators in the water sector. It was founded in Paris in 2009; Eau de Paris is a founding member. The objective of the network is simple. The European public operators felt that their voice was no longer being heard, whereas the private sector was able to make itself heard, created associations, and organised efficient lobbying. The initiators of the network wanted the public water management, based on public service values to be defended at European level. The network brings together Italian, Belgium, French and Swiss operators. Spanish and German operators are currently in the process of joining. The idea is to raise the voice of European public operators, as well as share experiences and mutualise certain actions. Aqua Publica Europa is a genuine collaborative workspace, as well as being a place where public operators can exchange and co-operate.

The European institutions have also understood that not only private operators can be important actors in the water sector. Aqua Publica Europa was requested to participate in the European Commission’s Water facility. This is all very positive change, because until recently the European Commission favoured the private sector. It is now possible to develop Public-Public Partnerships with European funding. The weight of the private sector is still considerable, but a certain desire to change the balance does exist now.

Paris is involved in several projects involving international co-operation in the water sector. In some cases, Eau de Paris is making their staff, skills and know-how available to other local authorities and associations, like NGOs. In other instances, it is the City of Paris that is providing funding for projects, such as Parisian NGOs of African migrants who want to introduce water supply systems in their very efficient public system) in order to set up a social tariff. There is a Public-Public Partnership between Eau de Paris and the ONEP, the Moroccan water company, that is studying how to implement a water supply system in Mauritania. Eau de Paris hopes to develop more similar partnerships, particularly as European funding is now available to do so.

It is possible to win the battle for public water management, be it in Cochabamba, Paris, Jakarta, or elsewhere, on condition the consumers and citizens become involved. As local and public authorities we need to set the example and implement efficient management of a resource that is both fragile and indispensable. If we do so, in a few years we may witness no more decision-making based on the comparative merits of public and private management of water systems, because the benefits of a public system may have become sufficiently obvious for the question to no longer be posed at all. We could then move forward to other struggles and defend public goods as well as water.