Download: The quality of water and sanitation in France

Report on the quality of water and sanitation in France by Mr. Gérard Miquel, Senator.


The referrals to the Parliamentary Office for the Evaluation of Scientific and Technological Choices (OPECST) function as a barometer of opinion. They reveal the questions, the anxieties of our fellow citizens. The request of the Finance Committee, the general economy and the plan of the National Assembly, on "the quality of water and sanitation in France" confirms that the environment and health have become major themes of reflection of our changing society.

One-quarter of the Office's reports concern these subjects, but their echoes are growing, showing that the Office is doing a useful job in trying to provide answers, at least as neutral and comprehensive as possible, to questions of news. This report is a synthesis of one year of work, hearings and field visits, always exciting.

Water, an indispensable element of life, the "patrimony of the nation" (article 1er of the law of 3 January 1992 on water), is obviously a constant preoccupation of all eras and all places. Only words (evils?) Change. Too often, when there is excess or scarcity, water is a matter of life and death: In our regions, concerns have changed. Formerly, we wondered about the safety or the drinkability of water, now we are concerned about their quality. A priori, however, the report is reassuring. The water distributed at the tap is of good quality, and the French are, for the most part, satisfied with the water supplied to them.

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Nevertheless, concern is growing and litigation is increasing. To ritual questions about taste and limestone, affecting the approval, are added today fears related to agricultural pollution or even the threat of bacteriological attacks. Behind the simple question lies the apprehension of risks related to food security. Water, vital element, is a fragile good where the fears of the world are concentrated.

Is this fear justified? In our consumer society, marketing, advertising, media coverage, which gives a national echo to a local incident, and the search for sensationalism, contribute to forming opinions and inducing behaviors. Fear is a niche and many people get into it to sell paper, filters or bottles. Many of these reactions are excessive or irrational, but this worry must be considered as factual, almost political.

On this type of subject, which mixes technical and political, which addresses consumers and citizens, the Office seems to be a privileged place of exchange and analysis. Three reasons may justify his involvement:

- The contradictory expectations of public opinion, as evidenced by this curious poll: the French have little confidence in the public authorities to inform them about food security, but when we ask them "who should inform them? »They turn to the same public authorities. Thus, public opinion denounces and calls at the same time. The Office, at the heart of institutions but on the fringes of political quarrels, can find its place in this system;

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- Listening to local elected officials, in particular mayors. Water management is the business of local communities… They are at the forefront of the maintenance and efficiency of distribution and sanitation networks, but also in the event of an incident. However, if they are exposed on the political, legal, media level, mayors are not always well armed in the face of adversity and the questions of their fellow citizens. What to answer to an interlocutor who fears for his health, to an opponent who evokes the risk of cancer, or even, as we heard during this mission, of "water genocide". Water is also a science that refers to knowledge, acronyms, inaccessible to the greatest number, including most elected officials.

The Office wanted to work for them. This report was first conceived as an information tool, an educational tool for elected officials.

- The ambition of a forward-looking vision. Information on water is abundant, even overabundant. But this year of study made it possible to think that there was sometimes a lack of benchmarks and strategic orientations. Even if the treatment techniques are at the highest level, it seems that France is addressing
in the nineteenth century this crucial question of water management and quality with
structures and mentalities of the 19th century, hanging on the image of the fountains of the
village where the water was pure and free ...

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Reforms seem inevitable. At all levels and in all sectors (agriculture, management structures, control services, etc.). But if
choices are necessary, the courage sometimes lacks to impose them… However, the conditions seem reunited to undertake.

Concern, environmental pressure, European policy, the right to experiment are all factors of mobilization. This report, which is intended to be educational and prospective, finds its place in this context and is one of the expressions of this citizen debate.

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