French water agencies face sweeping reforms

Environment minister criticises agencies' application of polluter pays principle

French environment minister Dominique Voynet has announced that the country's six water agencies are to be reformed after two highly critical reports of their performance were leaked to the press last week (ENDS Daily 16 November).

Speaking at the annual conference of the agencies' directors on Wednesday, Dr Voynet said she would put forward proposals for reform early next year. "The time [had] come to review the institutions" she said, but adding that she did not want "to throw the baby out with the bath water".

Dr Voynet revealed that she had given instructions for the reports produced by the National Planning Commission (NPC) and the Court of Auditors to be made public as soon as possible. They are said to accuse the agencies of not being "up to dealing with the problems" of water management in France.

She listed many shortcomings of the current water management system but concluded that inappropriate application of the polluter pays principle appeared be at the root of the problem. Water abstraction and pollution charges did not adequately reflect the impacts of the different activities on water resources.

For instance, she cited the Adour-Garonne river basin area where water abstraction for irrigation accounts for 80% of overall water consumption and yet farmers only

contribute 1% of total levies. Charges should also more accurately reflect the contribution of agricultural pollution she said.

The agencies' expenditure is also under scrutiny. "How can the considerable sums invested by the water agencies be justified if their effects on the natural environment are not assessed and if enforcement of legislation is not monitored?" Dr Voynet challenged. She wants agencies to dedicate part of their income to improving their knowledge of the state of waterways, particularly minor rivers in rural areas.

Dr Voynet also condemned the lack of democratic control of the agencies. She stressed the need to make the agencies' administrators and their decision-making bodies - the water basin committees - accountable to Parliament, especially for the approval of the agencies' multiannual action programmes. She further recommended that a national water authority be set up to make the running of the system more transparent and that NGOs should be given a greater say in water management matters.

Follow Up:
French environment ministry, tel + 33 1 42 19 20 2.

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