The tension is at its height in the battle around the model to be adopted for the drinking water of tomorrow. For both camps in attendance, Tuesday July 6 is an important day. In the camp of private water operators, first of all, it is the last day to apply for the largest contract in France: the management of drinking water for 4.6 million Ile-de-France residents served by the Syndicat des eaux d’Ile-de-France, the Sedif.
The approved candidates will have, at the end of July, the specifications of the next public service delegation (DSP), for a period of twelve years. The Sedif will choose the winner in mid-2023. The outgoing, Veolia, whose current DSP ends at the end of 2023, will not be easily dislodged. For the “new Suez”, the test will be crucial.
Two camps clash
Because after the merger of Veolia with Suez at the end of the year, the future independent group will be detached to be held by the Meridiam and GIP funds. It is by the yardstick of the Sedif call for tenders that observers will measure whether there is still real competition in France after this operation.
At the same time, another camp is showing its muscles. The national meetings of the “France Eau Publique” association bring together local communities managing their water through public utilities. For them, the DSP is a stranglehold by the private sector on a vital resource which suffers from their race for profit, and the choice of Sedif to remain in DSP is painful. Their fight is being carried out by major public players such as Eau de Paris, created when the drinking water supply for intramural Paris was brought back to control ten years ago, when Veolia lost its DSP.
More expensive treatments
Behind these two management models, two visions of tomorrow’s drinking water clash: should it be high-tech, with more expensive drinking water treatment, or low tech and “sustainable”, preferring to prevent pollution rather than to cure it with treatments. The debate is illustrated by two projects. First of all, that of Sedif. As part of its next CSP, it will launch a program worth 800 million euros to provide its three water plants by 2030 with very advanced technology for treating emerging pollution.
The process is similar to seawater desalination: the water collected in the Seine, Oise and Marne (Sedif has no groundwater) will be propelled under pressure through membranes. This process, called “low pressure reverse osmosis” (OIBP), has never been applied to drinking water in France. It will be a first and it crystallizes passions.
New European directive
The new European water directive of December 2020 sets new criteria for monitoring new pollution, without however requiring them to be treated at this stage. It has not yet been transposed into French law. The process promoted by Sedif, at the high cost, divides. The private water stakeholders “are engaged in a real technological headlong rush, which goes against the ecological transition and will weigh heavily on the water bill”, accuses the president of Eau de Paris and deputy to the Mayor of Paris in charge of water, Dan Lert.
“There is no headlong rush. Leaking is when you don’t know where you’re going. We believe that the OIBP is the best technique in terms of value for money for the future ”, retorts the first vice-president of Sedif, Luc Strehaïano. The Ile-de-France union estimates that this will increase the price of water by 20 cents per cubic meter.
Eau de Paris is also worried about seeing Sedif discharge into waterways, if the administration authorizes it, the concentration of pollution that the OIBP will generate by its extreme filtration of water. It also points to the increase in water and electricity consumption implied by this process, which it is testing in two miniature pilots.
The public camp brandishes, as an alternative, the project carried out by Eau de Paris in its water plant in Orly (Val-de-Marne), which serves 25% of Parisians. 45 million euros are invested there to start mid-2022 a filtration of drinking water improved by activated carbon, a more frugal technique. The future will settle the high tech-low tech debate. For now, the winner is Stereau, the engineering subsidiary of Saur, which is setting up both the OIBP for 2024 in the Sedif pilot plant in Arvigny (Seine-et-Marne) and the filtration by activated carbon from Eau de Paris.