Water and debate

While water is a major global issue, water policies remain relatively remain relatively absent from public debate, and are often misunderstood citizens. What is the rationale behind these policies? and what are the power relations that run through them? Sylvain Barone and Pierre-Louis Mayaux and Pierre-Louis Mayaux, political science researchers at G-EAU G-EAU* and authors of the book Les politiques de l'eau.

With just a few months to go before the presidential elections, what place do you see for water in the public and political debate in France?
S.B: Relatively discreet... The only political formations that have made it a real campaign issue are La France insoumise, from the angle of the common good, and Europe Ecologie Les Verts, from the angle of environmental protection.

How do you explain why this issue mobilizes 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. What's more, water represents a much smaller budget item than energy or telephony, even for companies. But this observation of low politicization needs to be put into perspective: just about everywhere in France, associations are fighting to preserve the resource, and the subject of agricultural water in particular is beginning to mobilize a large number of people, as can be seen in the opposition to reservoir ponds in the Deux-Sèvres region.

The debate often crystallizes around drinking water, even though water policies cover a much broader spectrum. Why is this?
S.B: Drinking water, sanitation and what we call the small water cycle are the policies that are best identified by the public. The large or natural cycle, which concerns rivers, natural environments and groundwater, is less debated. One of the reasons for this is that the smaller cycle often affects daily life more directly.

And yet we speak of integrated water resource management (IWRM)?
P.L.M.: Yes, water policy in France still follows the IWRM reference framework, which gained international recognition in the 1990s. This type of management seeks to reconcile all uses on the scale of a large watershed or river. From the outset, this movement has been based on the idea that users and companies should participate in water management, rather than leaving the State solely responsible for water policies.

And what form does this user involvement take?
S.B: France was a pioneer in this field, setting up basin committees at the level of major river basins in the 1960s. These deliberative bodies bring together elected representatives, government departments and representatives of water users. They play a major role in guiding water policy. However, this type of mechanism, which can also be found at local level, must not mask the existence of much more discreet negotiation strategies between certain players.

In recent years, it seems as though citizens are calling for more public and less private...
P.L.M : Yes, there has been a real movement back towards public service management since Grenoble's pioneering experience in the early 2000s: Paris, Bordeaux, Montpellier, Nice...

When it's not already on the agenda, it's on the agenda of green parties and left-wing parties in general. South America has also seen the emergence of a number of major protest movements against the big private water companies, culminating in the emblematic cancellation of Suez's contract in La Paz in 2005 (see A look back at Suez's withdrawal from La Paz-El AltoP-L.Mayaux).

These water multinationals - Veolia, Suez, Saur - are French, by the way...
P.L.M : Yes, for rather complex historical reasons, France has a great deal of experience in the private management of water, which is rather amusing since, in the imagination, we often associate France with the State; yet on a global scale, it's one of the rare countries to have developed a very powerful private sector in the small water cycle. When the World Bank speaks of the French model, it's the model of private management.

Isn't it also because water is a technical issue that we're leaving it to the private sector?
S.B: I'd like to start by saying that we shouldn't leave technical issues to the technicians! It's a real democratic issue. Talk of the technical nature of water suits certain players who use it to marginalize elected representatives and citizens. To answer your question, technology is not the prerogative of the private sector, nor is it the only argument in this debate. In particular, there is a demand for transparency, with the idea - which needs to be qualified - that public management would in itself be less opaque.

Water policies in France are steered by the Ministry of the Environment. Is this an ecologically-minded policy?
P.L.M.: The environmental issue is much higher on the agenda in France and Europe than in the rest of the world, where the trend is more towards supply-side thinking to ensure the sustainability of economic activities. We're always looking for more water, further and further away, without questioning consumption. We see mega-dams being built from China toEthiopia, in the Maghreb or in the western United States...

Yet here too you warn...
S.B: For the past 30 years, water policies have increasingly been presented as environmental policies. They have produced undeniable positive effects for the natural environment. Just think of all that has been done in the field of sanitation. But the march towards greening is always reversible. The revival of the policy of reserving water for agricultural irrigation, driven by powerful coalitions of stakeholders, is a good illustration of the power relations that structure these policies.

What interest do public authorities have in keeping these issues invisible?
S.B: Keeping "black boxes" closed means protecting negotiations, or even historic compromises between the State and certain social groups. Opening them risks undermining these compromises, and perhaps sparking collective mobilization.

* G-EAU (CIRAD - AgroParisTech - IRD - INRAE - Institut Agro)

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