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How Paris's public water supply is beating Covid

Compared to the waste and short-termism of privatised services, Eau de Paris is taking a holistic approach to serve current and future generations.

Anna Polonyi
12 November 2020
Image: Anna Polonyi

On a sunny afternoon in late August, Sebastien Wurtzer pulled on a hazmat suit and complained about being overwhelmed by shit. “We are drowning in it,” he said, and waved at a table laden with samples of water, ranging from crystal clear to murky brown. On the plastic bottles, the names of popular beach towns, some of which have been on the news amid a spike in coronavirus cases.

Wurtzer is a lead virologist at Eau de Paris’s research lab, a facility nestled in the capital’s southern industrial armpit, right next to a nightclub known for occasional shoot-outs. Wurtzer has been quietly tracking viruses in surface water for the past decade before events took a sharp turn earlier this year. In February, with the possibility of a pandemic looming, Wurtzer read a Chinese study claiming to have found traces of the virus in patients’ stools. That’s when it hit him: what if he could test the stool of every Parisian and check for the virus? Enter the capital’s wastewater.

Weekly samples from the city’s treatment plants mirrored the rise and fall of COVID-19 cases. Wurtzer and his boss, Laurent Moulin, quickly realized that they had a new way to cheaply monitor the health of large populations.

“It’s very difficult to track this pandemic because there are so many people without any symptoms, which by definition means they have no reason to go and get tested,” Moulin said. “We can easily have something like what happened in early July – there’s a rise in cases but we’re not aware of it because the people falling ill are mostly young and not getting diagnosed or ending up in the hospital. We were able to see in the wastewater that the total number of people infected was probably higher than everyone thought.”

Eau de Paris was returned to public control in 2010. This means Moulin’s findings and methods will not be patented and sold for profit, but rather published in peer-reviewed scientific journals and open for anyone to adapt in their own municipality. This is among the ways Eau de Paris continues to redefine what it means to be a public water facility, adopting a broad, holistic view of its mission that has drawn recognition from sources as diverse as the UN and American former teen star Zac Efron.

Ten years ago, none of this was a given. France has historically outsourced more of its water services than any other European country. From the mid-1980s up until 2010, water in the capital was managed by three different private operators, including Veolia, the world’s largest supplier of drinking water. They controlled the Right Bank, while the Left Bank was handled by a subsidiary of Suez, Veolia’s main competitor.

According to Anne Le Strat, former head of Eau de Paris, the fragmented private-public partnership was costly, inefficient and made it nearly impossible to hold anyone accountable. After years of political battle and long-drawn-out negotiations, mayor Bertrand Delanoë’s team finally managed to wrestle utilities from private control in 2010. Overriding union concerns over the loss of jobs, the city created Eau de Paris, the publicly owned company that produces, tests, supplies and bills Paris’s drinking water today.

In her book Une victoire face aux multinationales, published on the heels of her departure from city hall, Le Strat gives a blow-by-blow account of the remunicipalisation process, revealing the many forms of pressure and influence the two giants exerted in an attempt to sway or halt proceedings. “Veolia was not very subtle. They clearly tried to block us at every turn, head-on, in ways that were brutal and not very nuanced,” she told the press during her book tour. She warned that lobbying wasn’t just about “macarons” and free trips to hot islands – it’s also about the kinds of promises made in exchange for a water contract. “The large groups will say, if you give me your water utilities, I’ll finance your rugby team, or your football team, or your museum, or whatever.”

According to Le Strat, the game-changer was Delanoë’s choice to dig in his heels and push through with his election promise. “In the case of Paris, there wasn’t a lot of citizen mobilization, but we succeeded thanks to a political commitment that came from the very highest level,” she said.

Ten years down the line, Eau de Paris is a financially sound, economically stable model, outstripping private peers on several counts. Within a year of being created, Eau de Paris had cut 30 million euros in operating costs and brought the price of water down 8%. Accounting for inflation, a cubic meter of water in Paris today still costs less than it did a decade ago.

Benjamin Gestin, Le Strat’s successor, sits in an office with a map of the capital’s sprawling tap water supply, all the way from Burgundy in the south to Normandy in the west. When asked what accounts for his company’s success, Gestin offers a response worthy of Yoda. Just two words: “space, time.”

“If you look at it from the point of view of private entity, you get a contract, which will last for 10-15 years. So your term, your horizon as far as time is concerned, is the end of your contract. You're not incentivized to develop policies for the long-term. And if you look at it from the point of view of the challenges that water utilities have to face now, a lot of them are very long-term challenges, like climate change, or the water cycle.”

It’s true that while private companies are investing in increasingly sophisticated means of filtering to make dirty water drinkable again, Eau de Paris has taken a much more long-term approach, targeting pollution, pesticides specifically, further up the water cycle.

In a landmark move this March, Gestin gained approval from the European Commission to hand out aid to farmers working soil that directly impacts the capital’s water reserves. The aim is to help as many farmers as possible make the change towards organic production, in order to avoid any further pesticides seeping into the groundwater.

Within months of opening the scheme, nearly 50 farmers have signed on, with a total of 9,000 hectares slated for improved protection and close to 20 million euros committed to help them make the necessary changes.

“There's a historical antagonism between Paris and the rural territories around this idea that Paris, as a big city, is always coming and taking resources without giving anything in return,” Gestin said. “We are proud to declare that for the first time, Parisian money out of the pockets of Parisians is going into the pockets of farmers to protect the common water resources.”

While it may take up to 20 years to see real results, and the existing program only affects 3% of the total area exposed to potential pollutants, Gestin sees this as a model for the kind of long-term thinking necessary to protect future generations, and indeed others are taking notice of the Eau de Paris approach as well.

“You’re in Montreuil or Bagnolet, right across the road from Paris, and just by crossing the street, the price of water goes up by one euro,” said Jean-Claude Oliva, who leads the non-profit water advocacy group Coordination Eau Ile-de-France. “It’s the same kind of system, the same kind of water. It’s not like there’s even a difference in quality that could justify the jump in price.”

It’s not just about the price. Thanks to participatory budgeting, where Parisians could directly chose to allocate resources towards the projects of their choice, Eau de Paris was tasked with installing more public water fountains – 13 of which also provide free fizzy water. Contrast this with the suburban cities where, according to Oliva, free water access points have tended to be neglected, rather than added.

Most of those suburbs are on contract with Veolia and local authorities now look to Eau de Paris as an example. “The creation of Eau de Paris was a pivotal moment for us,” he says. “We can now say to local officials in the greater Paris area: look, Paris did it. And not only did they do it—they’re thriving!”

Eau de Paris is one of twelve inspiring stories of local transformation shortlisted for the 2020 Transformative Cities People’s Choice Award. Transformative Cities is a global process to search and support transformative practices and responses that are tackling global crises at the local level. You can still vote for the initiative that you find deserves more attention and resources to scale up until the 16th of November at: https://transformativecities.org.

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