by Alice Alech
- France -
Since the French revolution, town councils have been responsible for water management throughout France. Yet, most municipalities have been delegating the job to private water companies.
As a result, 72% of French people use water distributed by three leaders in water supply: Veolia, Suez and Saur. Each year, these companies increase the price of France’s water an average of 10%.
Today, in a bid to reduce costs and control privatization, the French government is finally returning the country’s water to the public sector.
“We want to offer a better service at a better price,” he says. “We also promise that prices will remain stable.”
Since 1985, when President Chirac was in power, water distribution in Paris has been provided by Suez and Veolia, which generated annual revenues of 30 million and 60 million Euros respectively (approximately US$38 and $76 million). Their current contracts will come to an end in 2009 and will not be renewed.
Water privatization is often linked to corruption, and the profits gleaned by the world’s water giants are often used to finance other projects. In its 1997 report, The French audit office, the Cour des Comptes, pointed to a lack of competition and transparency, excessive pricing, and unequal relations between municipalities.
One notorious case occurred in Grenoble, where water privatization was introduced in 1987 by the Suez Corporation. The city’s mayor, Alain Carignon - a close friend of then-President Jacques Chirac - was sentenced for accepting illegal campaign contributions and $3 million Euros in bribes, while two other Suez executives were convicted on related charges. In 1994, Carignon was sentenced to five years imprisonment and ordered to pay a $70,000 Euro fine. He lost his appeal and ultimately served 29 months of his sentence.
A second court case found that the Suez subsidiary responsible for managing water services had been overcharging Grenoble customers for years through fraudulent accounting; in 1999, the company had to pay back all the water charges imposed between 1990 and 1998. When Suez’s contract was cancelled, Grenoble’s water was returned to the public sector, effectively reducing water prices. The city now enjoys one of the cheapest water rates in France.
Over-billing is a common practice in France where water companies distribute their costs across the municipalities they serve. In November 2007, the French consumer organization, UFC - Que choisir, published the results of its research on the cost of water managed by the municipalities. The report showed that the private companies operating in Ile de France, Gennevilliers and Marseilles made a profit of nearly 60%. The year before, Que Choisir claimed that water in the Ile de France region was being billed at 2.5 times more than its actual cost.Consumers do not always know the actual price of water, because the bills are complex and unclear.
Jill N. lives alone in the historic fourth arrondissement in Paris, where original (historic) buildings are protected. Like many apartment buildings in Paris, a management agent is responsible for the day-to-day maintenance of her building.
Jill shares the building’s electricity and water bills with the other co-owners and tenants.
“We pay an estimated sum every three months and receive the final bill at the end of the year when we know the total number of units everyone has consumed,” she says.
She explains how one of the owners thought the system unfair as he considered his apartment a secondary home and used it only a couple of months each year. “The question of individual meters did come up,” she adds, “but ours is a very old building so not only would it ruin the property but it would also be difficult to install.”
The Durand family live in a 100-square meter apartment in Lyon. The collective water bill divided among the building’s sixteen occupants is not based on the number of occupants per apartment but on the area occupied. Mr. Durand could not provide the details of his water bill. “I don't know how much water we use as this is never indicated on our bill. The situation is changing though, and people in Lyon are asking for individual meters,” he says.
Around 40 municipalities and urban communities have recently returned their water to the public sector, providing cheaper and improved services. The switch to the public sector in Paris should pave the way for the country’s 36,700 municipalities to transition to public water management.
In the small town of Vidauban in the Provence area, the mayor is responsible for drinking water and sewage services. Management and investment decisions are made by the city council and its purification plant is managed by the municipality. Residents are sent very clear bills showing the breakdown of the water bill: 37% for the collection and treatment of used water, 46% for the distribution of drinking water and 17% for rental charges and taxes. The latter incorporates the 5.5% tax, which is levied on food products in France. Consumers are given the actual price of water charged: 82 centimes (US 90¢) per cubic meter without tax.
The good news is that France is drinking more tap water.
France used to be the capital of the bottled water industry but now the French are
turning to cheaper, environmentally friendly tap water. Danone Eaux France, supplier of ten brands of bottled water, claims that bottled water sales in France dipped by 6.5% in 2008. With food prices soaring, people can no longer afford to pay the high prices of brand names like Evian, Volvic, and Vittel.
According to Centre d’ information sur L’Eau (CI Eau), a public information center on water, 87% of French people feel that their tap water is good. The old fears of water containing chemicals and lead are slowly fading.To ensure that drinking water is healthy, clean and tasty, France follows the EU’s Drinking Water Directive (DWD) standards. Deriving its 48 microbiological and chemical parameters from the World Health Organization, the standards require regular testing and monitoring of France’s water sources.
France has an abundant water system with sources from five major rivers, water streams and ground water storage; yet hot summers cause large stretches of rivers to dry up, substantially reducing water tables.
Water thus has to be purified and transported at a significant cost. Fair pricing and efficient use are factors that still need to be addressed in France. A national regulatory agency, responsible for setting tariffs and monitoring standards, must be established. It’s unfair that private service providers are regulated solely through contracts with the municipalities and that tariffs, costs and management vary by region. But changes in political behavior and consumer awareness will start to shift policy.
Last year, the State Minister of Ecology and Energy encouraged the public to get involved in a campaign launched in October titled, L’eau c’est la vie. Donnez nous votre avis (Water is life. Give us your suggestions). All total, 43,000 people replied to the campaign’s questionnaire, giving their opinion on the future of water in their region.
Jean Louis Borloo’s message to the French people was quite clear. “Water is our most precious commodity. Together we will lead and win the battle for water.”
Alice's article is part of this month's focus on water. - Ed.
About the Author
Alice Alech is a qualified x-ray technologist and mammographer involved in the Breast Screen Program in both Australia and the U.K. She was born in Guyana, educated in the United Kingdom and has lived in the Caribbean, Australia and now in France. She travels regularly to the U.K. and Australia for work and has recently started freelance writing.