As droughts and water shortages have plagued global communities, the main environmental concern in France is pollution and the scarcity of water resources, ranking just behind global warming related to greenhouse gas emissions[1].

In fact, 87% of the French population are convinced that they have a role to play in water protection, and 58% of them think they are responsible for water pollution[2].

Whereas the infrastructure to produce and distribute water, built in the nineteenth century in France, allowed easy access to water for all, the twenty first century is clearly marked by increasing environmental concerns.

No doubt, the general public is influenced by the ongoing negotiations about climate change, including talks held in Lima last December, and next in Paris at the end of 2015. Conventional energy resources and water are increasingly scarce, and environmental and health issues are inextricably linked to each other. The classic economic models are being challenged and the time has come to rebuild them on a new basis and in a collaborative way.

What is needed is a cultural revolution which will promote change in behaviours and in habits. Innovation must benefit all members of the population, a necessary condition to ensure optimal performance of the economy. Value must be created for all stakeholders, be they customers, employees, or communities.

Taking into account the fact that water is now a scarce and threatened natural resource, SUEZ ENVIRONNEMENT, through its French subsidiary Lyonnaise des Eaux, launched in 2009 a programme called “New ideas on water” to promote thoughts and discussion and develop solutions to build a new water management model in France. To this end, a collaborative internet platform, open to all, was created to collect ideas. Local communities were interviewed, a forum of experts was organised and forums in regions with customers were set up. This platform was open to all stakeholders, including the company’s competitors. The ideas that have been collected led to the publication of five “Water workbooks” (“Cahiers de l’eau”): “Water, science and technologies”; “Water price and value”; “Water for all”; “What local authorities say about water” and “Citizens’ ideas on water”.

Following up on this initiative, Lyonnaise des Eaux launched a project called “Contract for Water Health,” at the end of 2011.[3] It consists of new and tangible proposals stemming from the “New ideas on water” debate, and aims to respond to customers’ expectations, and those of the general public, along three main topics:

  • A clear distribution of roles between local communities and water companies
  • A new type of relationship with local communities that are customers to increase transparency
  • Water has become everyone’s business: its management must be more open and information must be better shared with users

The Contract for Water Health combines innovative solutions and initiatives implemented by Lyonnaise des Eaux with local communities such as:

  • A computer-based tool designed especially for local communities, giving them real-time access to information pertaining to contract management and tracking of operation. Furthermore, fourteen 360° vision centers (called Visio) were scheduled to open throughout France beginning in 2014, using smart tools to connect Lyonnaise des Eaux employees with each other and also between water plants and pipes to better anticipate all types of events (climate, technical related, etc.).
  • The ongoing events, as well as ones predicted, are represented on a cartography and saved at all times, so local authorities can have a dynamic vision of their water services. These smart tools are connected to intervention teams already at work in the area and to response teams that can be dispatched promptly. The Visio Centers are also home to a wealth of expertise in four fields: the planning and scheduling of intervention teams; supervision of installations (plants, networks, etc.); the supply chain, which supplies the material to the intervention teams; and the experts who analyse the data collected.
  • Innovations for water purification. A process of aquifer recharge (enhancement of underground water reservoir supplies), known as geofiltration© has been implemented in several communities in the Paris Region and the South of France.[4] It uses the natural purification capacities of the sub-soil to decrease the need of reagents and sludge treatment by eliminating most of the non-desirable compounds.

To promote a focused, virtuous economy for water, Lyonnaise des Eaux is proposing to local communities that a portion of its payments be based on its environmental and social performance, as a function of contractually defined indicators, such as the optimisation of network efficiency and leak repair periods. All new contracts signed between a local authority and Lyonnaise des Eaux contain dozens of these indicators. In some French cities, such as Libourne, Orléans and Dunkerque, Lyonnaise des Eaux has instituted progressive rate plans that respond to a need for social pricing policies (enabling water access for all).

To go further and effectively address the challenge of protecting water resources, Lyonnaise des Eaux launched a new contest initiative in 2014 called “Join forces to protect water resources / Agir pour la Ressource en Eau.” Aimed at start-up companies, associations and researchers, it offers a prize to the most innovative proposals for water resource management. Five experts, independent from Lyonnaise des Eaux, serve on the jury and help disseminate thoughts and ideas to the general public on the main issues concerning water resources. Videos, debates and publications will provide feedback on the solutions that have already been put into practice and proven successful. For example, initiatives were introduced in 2012 to help interested farmers explore the conversion to organic farming at a catchment site in the Paris Region. At the end of 2014, 125 hectares were being cultivated applying organic methods.

The goal of this approach is to develop a new dynamic between all stakeholders of the large-scale water cycle. Citizens can freely submit ideas to companies; contacts between researchers and start-ups are promoted and become easier to implement.

The protection of water resources is clearly not only an environmental matter, but questions our responsibility as economic, civil and social players. No matter the degree, academic specialization, job or status: everybody is responsible for this change. And it is the role of governance to enable and encourage this collaborative process. These processes are embedded in Lyonnaise des Eaux’s internal policies following a roadmap covering the period from 2012 to 2016, with 12 commitments defined in the Contract for Water Health. This roadmap serves as a guidance tool that is audited by Vigeo, the leading European agency for Corporate Social Responsibility, with annual ratings published each year on Vigeo also applies its rating system to indicators defined within the Contract for Water Health, covering more than 40 impact areas: environment, human resources, market behaviour, social commitment and corporate governance. For 2013, Lyonnaise des Eaux earned a ranking of 65 out of 100.

Joëlle de Villeneuve is the Director of Sustainable Development at Lyonnaise des Eaux, Group Suez Environnement.

[1] SOeS CREDOC « Conditions de vie et aspirations des Français », 2013
[2] Centre d’information sur l’eau 2014