With the presidential elections just a few months away, what place do you think water has in the public and political debate in France?
S.B: Relatively discreet... The only political groups that have made it a real campaign issue are La France insoumise, from the perspective of the common good, and Europe Ecologie Les Verts, from the perspective of environmental protection.
How do you explain why this issue mobilises so few citizens?
P.L.M.: We saw with the water shortages in 2015 in Sao Polo or in Cape Town in 2017 that the debate is immediate when drinking water runs out. This is not yet the case in France. Moreover, water represents a much smaller budget item than energy or telephony, including for companies. However, this observation of a low level of politicisation must be put into perspective: almost everywhere in France, associations are fighting for the preservation of the resource, and the subject of agricultural water in particular is beginning to mobilise a large number of people, as can be seen with the opposition to water reservoirs in the Deux-Sèvres.
The debate often crystallises on drinking water, whereas these water policies cover a much wider spectrum. Why is this?
S.B.: Drinking water, sanitation, what we call the small water cycle, is the policy best identified by citizens. The large or natural cycle, which concerns rivers, natural environments and groundwater, is less debated. One reason is that the small cycle often affects daily life more directly.
Yet we talk about integrated water resource management (IWRM)?
P.L.M.: Yes, water policy in France still follows the IWRM reference framework that was imposed internationally in the 1990s. This management seeks to reconcile all uses on the scale of a large catchment area, a large river. From the start, this movement was based on the idea that users and companies should participate in water management and not leave the State alone in charge of water policies.
And how does this user involvement translate into action?
S.B.: France was a pioneer in this field by setting up basin committees in the 1960s at the level of large river basins. These are deliberative bodies that bring together elected officials, State services and representatives of water users. They play a major role in the orientation of water policies. However, this type of mechanism, which can also be found at the local level, should not mask the existence of much more discreet negotiation strategies between certain players.
Over the last few years, we have had the impression that citizens are calling for more public and less private services...
P.L.M.: Yes, there has been a real movement towards a return to public service management since the pioneering experience of Grenoble in the early 2000s: Paris, Bordeaux, Montpellier, Nice...