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World

“Universal access to water has given way to economic interest”

Interview by Marion d’Allard

Translated Monday 2 May 2016, by Adrian Jordan

The 24th World Water Day takes places today. At a time when more than a billion people in the world do not have regular access to fresh water, Emmanuel Poilane, head of France Libertés, denounces the stranglehold water multinationals have on this vital common resource. Interview.

You criticise the spread of the French model of water privatisation to countries in the southern hemisphere. What are the real effects of the establishment of big groups like Veolia or Suez in these parts of the world?

Emmanuel Poilane When they install themselves, these companies import an economic model which requires sufficient funds for access to water, certainly of very good quality, but very expensive. Now, the billion people in the world today who do not have access to fresh water are not able to pay the costs of the big groups. In this context, states and local authorities should bring in systems adapted to the reality of the situation, which could range from standpipes to complete systems of water supply and sanitation. The “cut and paste” of the western model, as practiced by the multinationals, does not work, and can be the cause of actual wars over water, as was the case in Bolivia, Argentina and Kenya.

Did the last World Water Forum bring advances in the field?

Emmanuel Poilane Unfortunately, the World Water Forums do not bring advances, primarily because they are not officially recognised as an official international forum for negotiation on the issue. The last event in South Korea became a mockery, taking the business approach of large companies, particularly South Korean ones. At the start of the 90s, however, the Earth Summit in Rio brought a real advance in universal access to water and sanitation. Funds were made available and whole development programs were set in place. However, the Millennium Development Goals, adopted in 2000, did not set any real targets in regard to water. Funding gradually disappeared... Perhaps last September’s United Nations adoption of new targets for sustainable development will bring a new impetus to the issue.

How would global management of water be the solution to ending the “scandalous commercialisation” of this common resource?

Emmanuel Poilane It’s a complex battle. During the campaign we led against the cutting of water supplies in France, we realised that politicians themselves, both right and left, held an economic approach towards water management. The importance of sharing access to water in a social model is being progressively eroded by a purely economic approach. To sum up the situation: if one bans cutting of water supplies, the number of defaulters will escalate and the service will be economically destabilised. We had to fight in the courts so that, little by little, the politicians changed their view. Now, for me, things are simple: if we cannot find financing to allow universal access to water, I do not see how to make sense of the society in which we live. This goes equally for the national situation as it does the international.

Returning water networks to the public domain, is that the solution?

Emmanuel Poilane In the world today, 90 percent of water networks are public. But we are faced with ever greater pressure on water resources. There are increasing shortages and the water is of poor quality. Treatment costs are excessive and this resource, which was not a significant burden on household finances during the 20th century, now weighs heavily on them. If we add the fact that water multinationals have largely abused pricing, it is easy to understand why returning water to municipal authorities has returned to the negotiating table. This also goes to show that the question of access to water and of public services is a subject of real public concern.

A law to guarantee access to water

Proposed by some 40 associations, one of which being France Libertés, a bill was proposed by members of five parliamentary groups in 2013. It is aimed at incorporating United Nations resolutions of July 2010 into French law and supports the right of universal access to water. The date for discussion of the bill is, finally, to be announced in the National Assembly today.


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