A New Water Policy For Paris, Democratic And Socio-Environmental Sustainable


From 2001 to 2014, a new water policy was implemented in Paris when I was in charge of this sector. We carried out a major overhaul of the water policy, not only on the organizational level but also in terms of perspectives, taking a holistic and integrated approach committing all the stakeholders.  We decided to take back the control of the water system by creating a new publicly- owned company. It came along with a broader designing of the guidelines and areas of focus: Water is a common good, vital to humanity, and as such needs to be managed according to fundamental values and human rights, e.g., performance and quality of course, but above all transparency, solidarity and sustainability.

A new publicly-owned operator, Eau de Paris

From the mid-80s to 2010, three different operators were in charge of Paris water services, with the municipality of Paris as the organizing authority. Two private operators – subsidiaries of Suez and Veolia – were in charge of the distribution and the billing, one for the Left Bank, the other for the Right Bank. The water production (catchment, transportation) was assured by a mixed ownership company, whose capital was shared between the city of Paris (70%) and the two private distribution companies. The Ministry for health, through a municipal laboratory (CRECEP), ensured that the water quality was consistent with the regulations.

This service organization was strongly criticized by numerous independent oversight regional and national authorities. The fragmentation between three different operators generated a splintering of responsibilities. An information asymmetry between the municipality and a lack of transparency from the two multinationals on both the financial and operational level were noticeable. Hence the monitoring and the evaluation of the quality of the service by the municipality were partial and deficient. It was quite impossible to get a genuine and effective control on the service. To give an example, the margin declared in their annual reports was actually at least the double. There were many unjustified costs and water price raised more than 175% between 1985 and 2008 for the sole drinking water part.

In 2001, when a new political coalition (Left and Greens) took office in Paris, we decided to carry out a complete overhaul of Paris water policy, guided by strong principles: providing the best water at a fair cost; placing users at the heart of the service; guaranteeing equal access to water for all; ensuring thorough and transparent management, and developing a sustainable and long-term vision.

After several stages including negotiations with the two multinationals companies, the municipality of Paris took the decision in 2008 not to renew the Suez and Veolia contracts and to instead create a new public operator, Eau de Paris (EDP), which took over all water operations. The challenge was huge; we should merge three private entities into a public one. We had to deal with a lot of very complicated administrative, juridical, technical, financial, human resources stakes. We succeeded to accomplish this merger process with an exceptional mobilization of the staff at every level.

On 1st January 2010, EDP became totally operational and took control of the Parisian water service, from the catchment through to the billing and the end-consumer service.

This ambitious reform programme was guided by a strong political belief that water needs to be managed as a common good and not to make profits, but also by the goal to set up a new model for the public local services. We wanted to not only lead a successful remunicipalisation, but also to demonstrate that we could operate in a more efficient and sustainable way with a public-owned company than with the former private companies.

Eau de Paris, the largest drinking water utility in France, is currently a 100% publicly-owned company without any private shareholders. It has legal and managerial autonomy and its own ring-fenced budget. All its income exclusively comes from the water bills. There are no taxes or subsidies coming from the municipality. The economic choice of a sole public authority operator favours financial equilibrium. The profits are systematically reinvested in the development of the enterprise, in the assets management, research program and so on. Contrary to what happened in the previous situation, there is now an entirely transparent policy of purchasing and works due to bidding procedures with public procurement that guarantee ethics and the best value for money.

Most of the staff (around 900 employees) has permanent employment contracts. Contracting out is kept to a minimum.

One of the first important changes is related to the governance framework. The political will was to involve all the stakeholders of the water sector and to introduce transparency, integrity and a check-and-balance system. Instead of having three private operators, including two big corporations, which steered the water policy by controlling all the information and the leverage actions, we have now a new governance model with the municipality of Paris as a genuine organizing authority and many diverse representatives of civil society.  Thus the municipality of Paris fully plays its role by defining the objectives and the policy framework, and by ensuring assessment and control of its water operator. The democratization of governance means that civil society is an effective partner in decision-making and can play a role of counter power to the local government.

A participative governance of the new public company

The political principle was to set up new governance structures to allow the active engagement of all water service stakeholders and to place citizens at the heart of the service. Eau de Paris has opted for a board of directors open to civil society and to employees representatives as well. It was a first in France.

A board of directors open to all the stakeholders

Traditionally the Board of Directors of Eau de Paris is only made up of elected officials from the municipality. The political decision has been taken to expand the board with representatives of civil society and EDP’s workers. There are currently twenty seats on the board: nine city councillors appointed by the municipal majority party, four city councillors appointed by the municipal minority, three representatives from civil society (the main consumers’ association, the largest environmental foundation and the Parisian Water Observatory) and two representatives from Eau de Paris staff, who are elected within the company’s works council. All have the same right to vote. Two additional members are experts, a scientist and a specialist of local participatory methods with consultative rights. No member of the Board receives financial compensation. The president is nominated by the mayor, subject to approval by City Council.  The president can cast the deciding vote in case of a tie.

EDP’s board of directors examines and approves all the main decisions related to the operational and management’s activities.  They have complete access to all information, data, reports and so on, so that they can decide with full background knowledge. All board members can request that any item, be it very specific or more widely strategic, be discussed in the board. The core democratic principle that underpins the new governance of Eau de Paris is to associate the employees and the civil society in the long-term and strategic decisions.  Specifically, it means that the budget, the business plan, the pluri-annual investment programming, and many other strategic policies are discussed and decided by the board. Hence the workers’ representatives, the citizens and associations all play a role in structural decisions and the major issues faced by the company.

An important point to note is that the two major civil society associations initially accepted seats on the new board on the condition of being non-voting members with consultative power. They indeed were not willing to be accountable for decisions taken by the EDP board which they felt could undermine their independence with respect to the municipality of Paris and Eau de Paris. After working on the Board, they changed their mind once they realised and appreciated their absolute freedom of speech and vote on the board.  As the board position allowed them access to all the information they need to carry out their mandate of independent administrators, they were convinced that they could enjoy complete autonomy within the board. Eventually, they requested to have the same voting rights as the workers and political representatives.

The check and balance principles, a key element for economical democracy, guide the governance insofar as all stakeholders have their own interest which are not always convergent.

The power and counter-power game, even if it is more complicated and time-consuming in the decision-making process, is a necessary condition for an economic democracy, as it sustains the legitimacy of the decisions taken. In the case of Eau de Paris it is a very beneficial experience. It allows a real debate between all the stakeholders in the public water service with a diversity of points of views. It also allows the points of views of actors other than water specialists and managers to be taken into account.

In this new governance model we also strengthened the check and balance principles and the role of civil society thanks to an innovative participatory democracy body, l’Observatoire parisien de l’eau (OPE), the Paris Water Observatory.

The Parisian Water Observatory

In 2006, the municipality created l’Observatoire parisien de l’eau following a demand of a local association. This participatory democracy body is an extra-municipal commission, and its current status was fixed by a municipal decree of 22 March 2013. At first it was a means of communication from the municipality towards the civil society associations. In the framework of the new water policy, I decided to transform it into a platform for information, discussion and debates on water issues including oversight functions on the service.

The Observatory is composed of four colleges of experts. This is a minima list of members drawn from civil society associations, trade unions, experts, academics, elected officials, etc.,  which does not exclude any other candidature. In addition to institutional and professional actors, individuals can be members in an individual capacity and all associations are welcome to apply for membership. It is not chaired by a Councillor of Paris but by a member of the OPE elected among its peers and not chosen at administrative or political levels.

The Observatory assists the City government in defining and implementing its water and sanitation policy. It is a consultation platform where citizens can raise concerns and transmit their requests to the municipality regarding water-related topics (like resources protection, water production, waste water treatment, rain water management, etc.). The Observatory draws up an annual work programme: it covers all the water issues on which the Paris Council will have to take a decision, as well as any other topics that its members judge appropriate.  It can present new items for the city council to debate and decide. It organises many meetings in plenary session and also thematic working groups. The municipality can also ask the Observatory to work on a specific issue to provide input to municipal debate and decision-making.

Although it is only an advisory body, it has real oversight functions over the water service. Thus, all the deliberations regarding the water policy voted at the City Council must be debated within the observatory before being examined by the council.

There are many reasons why it is difficult to build genuine democratic participation. The asymmetry of information and the partial lack of knowledge and/or technical skills of some parties – users and citizens mostly, are the main ones. In the context of our governance reform we gave more resources for civil society to access information, to fully grasp the water-related issues via the OPE and the board, and thus to grow into effective partners.

A performance agreement

In this new organisation of the water system a new evaluation tool was created to allow true control over the activities of the service by the elected representatives, municipal administration but also by the citizens.  It is the performance contract signed between the municipality of Paris and EDP every five years. The first one was negotiated in 2010 with the creation of Eau de Paris. This document is not confidential, and it is debated among the members of EDP’s board, within the Parisian Water Observatory and the local government.

This performance agreement has several fixed objectives and designs the missions of EDP within the municipality’s policies. Ten main social, environmental, economic and technical goals are defined and backed by forty more detailed performance indicators, ranging from “Ensure the supply of good quality water in any circumstances and a transparent management,” to “Users are placed at the heart of the water service” through a commitment towards a socially advanced corporation model. The contract also covers the city’s control over the operator and how success is evaluated. The public company reports on its management to the municipal administration, through regular reporting based on performance indicators. These are defined in the contract that binds the company to its organising authority.

While the municipality of Paris couldn’t carry out proper control over private companies concerning the financial and technical aspects of the service provided by them, the activities of Eau de Paris are monitored in a transparent and continuous way. In June 2017, Eau de Paris was awarded the United Nations Public Services Award in the category ‘Promoting transparency, accountability and integrity in public services.’

A sustainable and resilient water policy for Paris

Among the natural resources, water resources are most impacted by climate chaos and by pollution. The Paris’s water supply is provided by half from surface waters (two rivers, la Seine and la Marne) and by half from groundwater resources around Paris with catchment areas located in intensive farming lands. On the scale of the Parisian watershed basin, climate change could have a strong impact on aquatic environments. According to a number of scientific studies this could lead by 2100 to an increase in stream temperature – ~2° C in average –, with significant consequences for the biological and chemical quality of the water. This increases the water stress by declining water availability, some scenarios forecasting a decrease by 30% of the flow of the Seine and Marne rivers. The trend is already towards decreasing water resources and lower groundwater levels. In parallel we already notice an increase of frequency, duration and intensity of rain storms and floods. Paris is still threatened by a centennial-type flood, as experienced in 1901, which could today impact up to 5 million of inhabitants in the Parisian agglomeration and cause 5 billion euros worth damages.

In this context, the city of Paris and Eau de Paris are committed to making Paris and the surrounding area a sustainable and resilient territory, able to face the consequences of climate change, the loss of biodiversity and pollution. For this purpose, the remunicipalisation of the Paris water utility was accompanied by a complete redefinition of municipal water policy. The goal was to have an operator able to take a long-term perspective and to integrate wider social and environmental concerns.

A publicly-owned entity furthers a long-term vision and places present and future generations’ best interests at the core of decision-making. The absence of private shareholders and short-term returns on capital constraints allow EdP to invest and manage without pressure to maximise profits and return dividends. In the opposite of the big corporations, which are more guided by a financial rather than an industrial logic, Eau de Paris has to fulfil public service obligations over time.

From the start, it was planned that the new water system in Paris would encompass technical, democratic and economic issues with consideration of social and environmental sustainability. The new policy with its different phases was elaborated by the Paris municipality in collaboration with Eau de Paris and in consultation with the Water Observatory, before being eventually adopted by the City Council. This vote provided politically legitimate guidelines for the Paris water policy.

Two years following the creation of the public company, in 2012, the municipality published after discussion and vote the « Blue Book » (Livre Bleu). For the first time in Paris we had a comprehensive report about all water-related policies, actions and perspectives for the city of Paris. It draws up action plans to deal with the increased risks associated with floods, heat waves and pollutions, but also presents cross-cutting policies integrating the water system as a key element. Paris benefits from the different types of water circulating in the city (drinking, non-drinking, wastewater and rainwater) with different networks. Giving water, in all its forms, the rightful place it deserves, this Blue Book designs urban planning by integrating water as well-being factor in the local amenities and infrastructures, essential in a context of climate change.

Water accessibility and promotion

Water accessibility is a major issue, and a social policy of water has been set up. A commitment was taken by the municipality to decrease the price of water in the context of the remunicipalisation. We wanted the consumers to pay the price that reflects transparently the sole cost of water.  As early as 2010, after a debate within the both the Paris Water Observatory and the Board, we took the decision to lower the price of water by 8%. In 2020 the price is still very affordable and controlled (in fact less than 1% annual increase), one of the lowest prices in France. At the same time, water cuts have been prohibited in homes (it was the case long before 2013’s Brottes law prohibited water cuts nationwide) and even for squats. No flow rate restrictors have been installed. Eau de Paris makes an annual €500,000 contribution to the Housing solidarity fund (FSL), which allocates funds to help people keep their housing and pay their water bills. In 2012 a Water Solidarity fund was created for individual subscribers. We have also developed an “on-street water access” action for the homeless (flasks and jerrycans distributed along with water access maps in the city).

Since 2010, Paris increased the presence and the visibility of public drinking water fountains accessible to everybody throughout the city. Many free public drinking fountains have been installed in public spaces (gardens, squares, and so on). Currently 1,200, and numerous public fountains are kept in working order during winter to enable homeless people to access water. We developed an innovative concept with the creation of « La Pétillante ». It is a sparkling water fountain which supplies tap water made carbonated by a simple process. This initiative was very much appreciated by Parisians. In the framework of the city’s participatory budget, Parisians voted to finance ever more new fountains in public spaces.

In its overarching policy to promote tap water versus bottled water, Eau de Paris with the municipality launched many campaigns and sensitization programmes to encourage the use of tap water, which is cheaper and better for the environment. It enhances responsible consumption by promoting the value of tap water in schools and among the young, targeting actions on the less well-off, supplying water during major cultural and sporting events. It has developed an education and awareness-raising policy to help people, especially children and the less well-off households, to understand water related issues and to offer advice on how to limit water consumption. Each of these initiatives is an opportunity to prove that tap water is a natural everyday resource for people wishing to consume responsibly.

Furthermore, in 2007 we opened a venue dedicated to water, the Pavillon de l’eau. It is a unique place to alert, inform and debate about water and environmental issues.  Many free exhibitions, conferences and school programmes are organised there.

In July 2011, all board members voted unanimously to insource customer service, which marks an important milestone in the new relationship the municipal service aims to establish with its customers and users. In the former organisation of the water service, the fragmentation between three different operators made it impossible for users to identify who was responsible for the service. Furthermore the commercial management of the billing operated by the multinationals was very lucrative and totally non-transparent. Bringing the service in house allowed EDP to innovate technologically by designing a new range of free services that everyone can access: real-time information to consumers, leak alerts and over-consumption alerts. Called NOVEO this new array of services was targeted to help the consumers manage their consumption and their bills of water. A single entry-point center was launched to answer every question of all users and subscribers.

The new customer service ended up winning the award for Best Customer service of the Year (water distribution) for seven years in a row, with 97% customer satisfaction. This shows the performance of the new public water operator in Paris. That also demonstrates the ability of a public company to innovate and to improve the management of a water service.

The commitment of Eau de Paris and the municipality in an ambitious strategy to address environmental issues has resulted in the implementation of several innovations.

Resource protection and biodiversity strategy  

The protection of underground and surface water resources preserves the common natural heritage and landscape and makes it easier to provide quality drinking water. Intensive farming impacts the quality and quantity of water resources as well as biodiversity. Eau de Paris, thus, has to address the issue of water pollution by chemical inputs. In this context it takes many measures to encourage the transition to agro-ecological practices, which are better able to preserve water quality.

The public operator partners with farmers to contribute to more responsible water management, helping redirect farming practices towards a more sustainable and agro-ecological model. EdP provides expertise to help farmers use less chemical inputs, change their agricultural methods. It also purchases farmland plots and makes them available to farmers through land leases (rural and environmental) and encourages organic farming with low chemical inputs, working hand in hand with local stakeholders and the watershed basin agency – bassin Seine-Normandie. It has a staff team specially dedicated to this actions’ program.

This is a medium to long-term project, essential not only to protect water quality but also to anticipate and adapt to climate chaos. It enables Eau de Paris to improve the quality of water extracted and to reduce production costs and environmental impacts of treatment processes for making water drinkable.

Beside to the resources preservation, the public company carries out actions to safeguard biodiversity and to protect the diversity of ecosystems. Through its installations (aqueducts, production plants, catchment areas), Eau de Paris works with local stakeholders to help establish green and blue belts, which are ecological continuities essential for the welfare of inhabitants as well as for the fauna and flora. It modified its practices of maintenance on its catchments areas in favour of ecological management and restoration.

EDP is involved in the municipal policy for the revegetation of the public spaces and for the development of urban agriculture. Hence it has mobilised 10,000 square meters of some reservoirs and plants for this purpose.

Water/Energy nexus and urban planning

The public company is dedicated to reducing the ecological footprint generated by all its water production and distribution activities, deploying an ambitious climate-energy plan setting numerous ambitious climate change-related targets. The goals were to reduce by 2020 greenhouse gas emissions by 15%, energy consumption by 12%, and to increase the share of renewables in total energy consumption up to 95%.  In addition to the 4,000 m2 photovoltaic panels already in operation on EdP installations 11,000 m2 new ones have been planned. They are 2,100 Mwh produced thanks to solar panels. Eau de Paris also experiments with innovative technologies to create renewable energy. For example a production site of geothermal energy from the Albien underground Aquifer provides 17.500 MWh renewable energy. This process will cover 83% of the heating needs of a new neighbourhood which will house 6,500 inhabitants and 260,000 square meters of offices. Another innovative energy production process uses calories from water network to provide heat or air-conditioning thanks to the flow and the difference in temperature. The water department of Paris has also set up an innovative system for getting heat recovery from the sewer network. The process turns wastewater into a resource. Compared to other traditional energies, the one harnessed from the sewers shows numerous benefits: it is a renewable, locally and continuously available, clean and repurposing energy resource.

To make the city of Paris more resilient to face the impacts of climate change we decided to use water resources as an asset. This leads to the creation of more islands and cooling paths, with new green and natural open spaces for protecting biodiversity as well as developing a cooling network. There is a medium- to long-term plan to transform schoolyards into cooling and wellbeing island “oases”. It will aim at gradually replacing asphalt walkways with trees and vegetation, test new materials (porous and permeable) and new methods to cool schoolyards thanks to the non-drinking water network and rain water. In addition many initiatives have been launched to significantly increase the revegetation of buildings, walls, rooftops and to adapt urban spaces to high temperatures.

In Summary

Ten years after its creation the success of Eau de Paris is beyond any question and no more contested.  Contrary to the prevailing bias against the public entities, EDP shows that it can be very innovative in all fields and fully accomplish its obligations of public service. Several actions plans and initiatives have been implemented to improve the quality of the service and to cope with new challenges. In a real democratic approach providing citizens with the opportunity to be truly involved a new water service was set up to tackle future challenges in a sustainable and resilient way. In these troubled and worrying times, we have to reaffirm the need to ensure the provision of essential goods and services to humanity. For this purpose, water has to be managed not as a commodity but as a common good.