The French are satisfied with about 90% of their tap water despite some concerns, but they will have to get used to "service prices that are likely to increase", warns the Federation of Private Water Companies (FP2E). Based on a multi-year study presented on Tuesday in the presence of elected officials, agricultural representatives, consumers, health authorities and researchers, the professionals delivered a seemingly implacable reasoning, evoking "a wall of investment" and the current low revenues.
Carried out by the auditing firm BDO, the study estimates that French households spend 0.8% of their budget on water (on average 348 euros/year), referring to data from INSEE (National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies). "Contained expenses," the study points out, and water is among the cheapest in Europe according to the public information service EauFrance.
A drop in consumption that poses a financing problem
The study also notes the more water-efficient behaviour of the population compared to the 2000s. The government wants to amplify this development with the Water Plan, the objective of which is to support the myriad of local authorities managing water services (13,851 in 2022) towards at least 10% water savings by 2030.
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"This reduction in volumes is what we have all been waiting for collectively," said Tuesday the general manager Eau France of Suez, Arnaud Bazire, president of FP2E since July. But "if volumes continue to decrease, it poses a problem on how to sustain the financing of the network," he warned.
In an opinion voted on 29 November, the Economic, Social and Environmental Council (EESC) also spoke of an "inevitable" increase in the price of water. Especially since the sector considers itself to be "on the front line" of climate change, which makes water scarcer, weighs on its quality and sharpens conflicts between users. In ten years, more than half of the metropolitan departments have suffered a decrease of more than 5% in the average annual flow of their rivers, the FP2E report points out.
At the same time, the study estimates the volume of water withdrawn for the production of drinking water in metropolitan France at 5.3 billion m³ on average since 2012, or 220 liters per day and per inhabitant in 2021. This represents 500 million m³ less on average than in the 2000s when the population has increased.
Invest in Pipe Repair
For many people, "the price of water is now unclear," he says, while it would be wise for everyone to have "at least a monthly or quarterly view" of their consumption, explains Alexandre Mayol, a lecturer in economics at the University of Lorraine and a specialist in water economics. Mainly deployed in cities, smart water meters allowing remote reading or alerts in the event of a leak are progressing. They now equip 42% of households (16.8 million in 2021, i.e. +4.2% compared to 2017), according to the study.
But "beware of miracle solutions," says Alexandre Mayol. Depending on the case, it is also necessary to check whether the money would be better invested in repairing the pipes rather than in those famous smart meters. Even the progressive pricing of water that the government planned to generalize (the first essential m³ are cheaper, the tariff increases with consumption) is not as simple as it seems, he points out, citing the pioneering example of Dunkirk (North).
In France, the price of water depends on the municipality or intercommunality of residence. Water companies supply drinking water to nearly 60% of French people and wastewater treatment to 51% of them. According to the BDO study, the median tap price reached €4.02 per m³ in 2021 (50% of French people paid less, 50% paid more), with significant disparities, from €0.89 to €10.95 per m³.
The differences are explained by local geography, technical factors such as the decrease in leaks on the network, which has been improving overall for ten years in France according to manufacturers in the sector. Finally, the price also depends on the presence or absence of industries, the seasonality of the population with tourism and, above all, the investment choices.