Only the pipeline entering the heavily protected tunnel gives any indication of what to expect. But a 350-metre drive through the heart of the Grand Rochefort mountain soon reveals why it is walled off to the public. For as you exit, you are treated to a vast clearing and lush green water-refreshed pastures as far as the eye can see.
“Visitors are always surprised, all of a sudden you have the impression that you’re at the end of the world,” says the director of the Rochefort water catchment station, Jean-Louis Avrillier, as he smiles. “You would never imagine that so close to Grenoble.”
Grenoble, the capital of Isère, a department in the southeast of France, guards its secret well: the water that runs through the taps of the city is managed by the public sector — and is amongst the cheapest in France. The city, located around 10 km north of the catchment station, stretches across 2,400 hectares and has yet to be perturbed by urbanisation.
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Water Doesn’t Just Fall From the Sky
The Rochefort water catchment station, a haven of peace is well-protected and with reason: the water tables hidden beneath the swaying tall grass are invaluable. Since the end of the nineteenth century, it has supported the 758,000-strong population of Grenoble and its metropolitan area with pure and untreated water — a unique case today in France for such a big city.
The secret behind such a feat? The layer of clay, a geological characteristic of this zone, is a more efficient filter than chlorine or any other chemical product used to render water drinkable.
Even Napoléon, ahead of his time, had homed in on the potential of this site, imagining the neighbouring metropolis as a thermal spa resort. Here, at the doorway to the Alps and at the foot of the Vercors Massif and the Chartreuse range, the water isn’t simply excellent, it is also abundant.
“The volume collected corresponds to only 17% of its total capacity,” explains Avrillier, who manages 42 employees at the site. Since 1885, when the first pipes became operational, Rochefort station has had the capacity to provide up to 50,000 m3 of water every day to the people of Grenoble.
133 years later, it supplies around half of the urban area with water, extracting a daily average of 35,000 m3 from the Drac aquifers.
“People start to think that water just falls from the sky, but there would be nothing coming out of their tap without the daily work monitoring the infrastructure, the maintenance of the pipes and the water transportation systems,” Avrillier says.
Indeed, Grenoble’s residents are able to enjoy this rich water heritage because it is managed by the public sector. But this wasn’t always the case. Water became a service of general interest to the territory after a hard-fought battle by environmental activists and elected officials in the 1990s. At the time, and in the early 2000s, this represented a stark contrast to the privatisation models that were mushrooming across France and Europe. Today, 70% of French municipalities delegate their water management service to the private sector.
In 1983, the conservative politician Alain Carignon was elected mayor and, in 1989, he delegated the water management services of the city to a private company, a subsidiary of the Lyonnaise des Eaux. The company, one of the three corporate ‘water giants’ along with Veolia and Saur, has since joined the Suez group and now shares its name.
Even before the privatisation of water management, in June 1989, workers from the water sector and activists began protests in what has been referred to as a “water war”. A petition was also launched to defend water as a public good and gathered more than 10,000 signatures.
In July that same year, during the Municipal Council’s meeting when they approved the water market concession, 1,500 people gathered in front of the City Hall to protest. Activists handed out leaflets and organised press conferences to explain the perils of privatisation — but to no avail.
The consequences of privatisation were quickly felt by the residents: between 1989 and 1995, the price of water increased by 56% in Grenoble. A report aired on the 7 o’clock news on France 3, one of France’s public television channels, in June 1995 highlights the growing frustration of the residents by showing two water bills. The first bill, from 1989, when water services were handled by the local government, was 5.35 francs per m3, and the second, from 1995, 15 francs per m3.
In 1995, in a dramatic end to the disastrous management of public funds, the mayor was indicted for corruption and misuse of public assets related to the water market concession. He spent two years behind bars.
Grenoble’s civil society, organised around a few associations and the ecological political party Les Verts (the Greens), sought to make the most of this short window of opportunity. The momentum was launched to demand the “remunicipalisation” of water services, which culminated in the creation of the municipally-owned Eaux de Grenoble-Alpes (Water Authorities of Grenoble) in 2001.
Making Waves in Grenoble and Across France
At the time, the political victory was unprecedented. “Grenoble becomes the first French city to roll back [water] privatisation,” remembers Olivier Bertrand, who has since been elected municipal councillor with the majority party, the Greens.
Remunicipalisation has allowed Grenoble’s city-dwellers to save 20 million euros — mainly thanks to more efficient water use achieved by improving maintenance. Since then, the remunicipalisation of water management has never been questioned.
The services remain under public management: “water is part of the non-negotiable shared heritage [of Grenoble],” says Vincent Comparat, a veteran of the cause as president of the Association Démocratie Ecologie et Solidarité (ADES — Association of Democracy, Ecology and Solidarity). This approach to water as a “common good” was imposed almost naturally, as a logical consequence of the change of government.
Raymond Avrillier, another member of the ADES, a whisteblower and an environmental activist, played a key role in this fight for remunicipalisation. He explains the fundamental change involved: “Today, the staff accomplish their mission regardless of the market and any consideration of private gain. This allows for the development of a public service based on a long-term perspective, with several important investments. […] All of this is supportive of the protection of resources and the reduction in consumption. The outcome is that the city of Grenoble has water of both remarkable quality and price.”
At 3.18 euros per m3 (as of 2016), the price of Grenoble’s water is significantly lower than the average in France, which is 3.72 euros per m3. “Our water is amongst the cheapest in France,” says Bertrand, who is also the president of the Water Authorities of Grenoble-Alpes. “This price is a direct repercussion of the good maintenance of the system.”
In Grenoble, around 2,000 kilometres of pipes transport the water from the spring’s catchment points to the residents, transiting through one of the 168 reservoirs which stock water at different points in the city. This type of infrastructure would not be properly managed under a contract delegating water services to the private sector.
“Public Management Allows Us to Take Into Account That Which Is Indispensable”
Emmanuel Boudry, director of the Water Authority of Grenoble and former employee of the private water sector is the perfect person to explain why the public sector works better for maintaining public water infrastructure: “The [private] contract dictates a deadline within which the provider must be profitable. The maintenance of a pipe is thus not their priority because there is no return on investment. It’s a rhythm that does not correlate with the life-cycle of the shared water heritage, which extends over 60 to 80 years. Only public management allows to take into account that which is indispensable, to the benefit of the user.”
Behind the arguments of “innovation” or “efficiency” that the private sector bang on about most of the time, the reality is often a drastic decrease in costs, of which the first victims are also those who use the services.
Gladys Marmoex, director of the cartography department of the Water Authority of Grenoble and in charge of managing all the databases in the system, is the first to agree. For her, there are no doubts, the public management of water offers another level of comfort to the different sectors of water professionals: “all the skills and all the information is handled at the same time and internally,” she says.
“This means we offer a much more detailed knowledge of the territory and a greater ability to react to the challenges we may face.” She continues: “this also creates a feeling of belonging, almost an emotional connection, with this shared water heritage.”
But it’s the contagious nature of Grenoble’s transformation that truly showcases how successful Grenoble has been. In the wake of the city’s success, other important cities across France have also remunicipalised their potable water system.
Paris regained control of its water management in 2010; Anne Le Strat, then-deputy mayor and president of the new Water Authority of Paris, cited Grenoble as an inspiration, explaining that they had carried out several study visits. Brest, Nice and Rennes are amongst those that have also been inspired by the Grenoble model, and each city has been equally successful.
To such an extent that, today it is referred to as a full-blown movement, as the researcher Victoria Chiu explains in a report in 2013: “the movement towards a ‘remunicipalisation’ of public water services which is spreading across France can be considered a revision of the commercial value of water management. Its emergence has come about due to an awareness of the vital character of water and its protection in the long-term.”
Chiu continues: “The ‘remunicipalisation’ is, in a certain way, the locally elected politicians’ reaction to the acknowledgement that water qualifies as part of the shared heritage of the nation and that access to this essential service must be ensured.”
It was only in 2010 that the United Nations recognised the right to potable water as a fundamental right, making it a relatively recent attribution at the international level. In its own way, maybe Grenoble had something to do with it.
Clément, a resident of Grenoble who was 16 when Carignon was convicted, remembers the remunicipalisation fondly: “it was a wake-up call as to what a shared public good is, and here, we know what that means in Grenoble. People always say that it’s the only city in France where you can put tap water in baby bottles.”