Ecologists take control of water management in Lyon

France’s green party makes waves in Lyon, the second- largest metropolis behind Paris, with its decision to take water management public. 

95 percent of the drinking water consumed by the inhabitants of the metropolis of Lyon is collected on two islands in the center of the Rhone.  After decades of private management, the metropolis of Lyon is now setting up a public agency for the production and distribution of drinking water.  The transition of water management from private to public has been one of the major objectives of the ecologists, and was promised by Mayor Gregory Doucet, of the Europe Ecologie-Les Verts (Eelv) party when he was elected in June 2020. 

The official announcement was made public in October by the president of the Métropole de Lyon, led by environmentalist Bruno Bernard. The countdown has thus officially begun: the public service mandate, entrusted to the Véolia company since 2015, will end on 31 December 2022 and Métropole has already decided not to renew it.

Lyon will experiment with social and progressive pricing

Ecologists will use the time between now and the end of 2022 to prepare the transition and continue to provide 245,000 cubic meters of water per day, necessary for the 1.2 million inhabitants of the second- largest metropolitan area of France. But, alongside the technical transition, there is also the social transition.  A way must be found to reintegrate 280 employees of the Véolia water branch. A next resolution in this regard is expected on December 14.

"Public governance is a political choice: for us, the question of water is fundamental and the conservation of the resource is our priority," explained Eelv head Bruno Bernard to Le Monde. The goal is to allow "social and progressive pricing", with "the first cubic meters of free water for the most disadvantaged families". All "without price increase", but with the desire to "limit excessive consumption" through measures not yet defined.

An historical change for Véolia

The loss of this contract is particularly symbolic for Véolia.  Its predecessor, the Compagnie générale des eaux, supplied water to the city of Lyon through an imperial decree in 1853.  Today, the water management contract is worth 90 million euros per year and Véolia has 1,350 employees across different service areas managed by the multinational company: water, waste and energy.

Véolia's general manager, Frédéric Van Heems, met in person with Bruno Bernard to discuss the change. At the meeting, which took place in October immediately after Bernard's announcement, the CEO highlighted the investments adopted by the multinational company, including the installation of 5,500 acoustic sensors to detect leaks and thus increase the efficiency rate of the network from 77 to 85 percent over the last three years.

But the meeting did not change Bernard and his colleagues' minds: "We want to involve citizens in water management policy and encourage farmers to avoid pesticides," he explained to Le Monde.  The drinking water consumed by the inhabitants is collected through 114 wells, that carry the naturally filtered water under 20 meters of sand and gravel.  Covering 350 hectares, the site is classified as "Natura 2000" (a European Union certification for the conservation of ecosystems).

Criticism of the project

Véolia’s manager are predicting that there will be no domino effect. "The change of management will not multiply in France. We can find intelligent ways to continue working together," he added to Le Monde. "The work of the water cycle will become increasingly complex, with more and more investments to be made," and perhaps that is why Bernard has left what many see as an opportunity for Véolia: in fact, part of the services will be subcontracted, and they will act as a  consulting firm to write the legal framework for the future public authority.  In this way, Véolia can maintain an active role.

Also read: Rome's ancient aqueducts

The project, as it has been advertised, has attracted criticism from political opposition: "It's all about publicity, let's play the private against the public," replied Alexandre Vincendet, leader of conservative opposition group in Lyon, Les Républicains. For some, the social tax for water is a welfare measure, while for others, the creation of public authority is set up without concordance with the opposition, and with persistent bias.

Either way, the decision made by Lyon is certainly an important test for green policies and for the management of water as a common good, following in the footsteps of other French cities such as Paris, Nice and Grenoble.

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