How can citizens share responsibility for a polluted river valley basin?
By the middle of the 20th century, water pollution had become a major political issue in France. Much like the Izaak Walton League’s survey of water pollution in America had drawn attention to inadequate local pollution legislation a few decades earlier, the political debate over water quality in France soon centered on the failure of local officials to stringently implement water quality regulations.
Embarrassed by what was portrayed by the national media as a loss of control over local authorities, the French government modified a system of regional planning adopted after the Second World War to create a new set of water resource management organizations based on river basin boundaries, the basin agencies. The 1964 Water Law created one such agency for every major river basin in metropolitan France, and their powers and responsibilities have been progressively expanded through subsequent legislation. Though initially opposed by local governments as a threat to their customary authority in the field of water management, the basin agencies were eventually implemented nationwide and have become powerful, multipurpose institutions in their own right. Even more important, the active encouragement of nongovernmental participation has led to a genuinely participatory forum for water resource decision-making.
The Seine-Normandy Basin Committee, for instance, has 185 members, with 40 percent of the seats allocated to water-user group representatives, including agricultural and industrial users, 40 percent to local government and 20 percent to central government representatives. Stakeholder representatives include delegates from the Seine-Maritime Agricultural Association, the Fishing Federation of the Aube the Peugeot-Citroen motor company, water and hydropower utilities, a consumer advocacy association and three environmental nongovernmental organizations. The agencies themselves effectively act as the administrative secretariat to support implementation of the committee’s decisions, including preparation of basin management plans, levying fees on water users and financing water infrastructure projects within each basin (Noel 1990).
The National Water Committee convenes water resource management stakeholders at the national level to make periodic decisions with applicability to the whole of France. This robust institutional architecture has proven to be remarkably conducive to collaborative and participatory decision making. However, its development has been the product of sustained political bargaining and coalition-building between bureaucratic agencies, central and local levels of government and civil society organizations.
By the time the water agencies were first proposed in the early 1960s, environmental matters had begun to decisively influence French politics. The départements, however, proved too sclerotic to address the complaints of organizations like the National Union of Fishing Federations. For these organizations, the prospect of a new structure of regional governance promised a more open political opportunity structure (Pritchard 2011). At the same time, the regional river basin organizations established by the Water Law offered the French state the ability to pursue twin strategic goals, both enhancing its own control over local governments while also accommodating new political interest groups like the National Union. The political value of the new institutions was reflected by the "largely political" composition of the basin committees, which attempted to carefully balance representation from central and local government, industry and other water-user groups (Barrque 1995, 443). In the eyes of national politicians, the chief attraction of the basin agencies lay in the fact that not only were they "not linked to a pre-existing tier of government" but they also "facilitated a broad approach to both water quality and water quantity management that went beyond abstraction and discharge controls." Finally, but critically from the vantage point of the central government, the new basin agencies were "sufficiently large to generate appropriate levels of fiscal revenue" (Buller 1996, 292). The basin agencies thus provided a new institutional structure through which to enhance both the political and financial powers of the central government relative to entrenched local governments.
Over time, the basin agencies have successfully assumed these functions and have steadily accumulated legitimacy among political actors at both central and local levels by increasing access to civil society interests. This successful evolution has, in turn, set the stage for its continual development and successful institutional performance. In 1992, France’s environment minister boasted that France’s river basin agencies were "an original concept that brings together civil servants, engineers, elected officials and industry. It works so well that Eastern Europe wants to copy us" (Paris L’Express International 1992). Amid this widespread political support, a 1992 revision to the Water Law strengthened the powers of the basin agencies, which were renamed "water agencies," and increased the representation of civil society organizations (Barrque 1995). The 1992 legislation stipulated that both basin and subbasin management plans were to be formulated with input from different water-user groups and were to be approved by the basin committee, on which nongovernmental groups were represented. In addition to these existing basin committees, which had been established by the 1964 Water Law, the 1992 revision expanded the political opportunity structure for civil society groups by creating local water commissions (commissions locale de l’eau) empowered to review local and subbasin water-use plans (Richard, Bouleau and Barone 2010). Furthermore, the National Water Council (Comité national de l’eau), made up of 82 governmental and nongovernmental representatives, was established to set national water policy, extending the influence of nongovernmental organizations to the national level (Ministry of Environment, Sustainable Development, Transport, and Housing 2014).
The most important achievement of the water agencies, however, is that through their broad-based participatory governance mechanisms they have proved adept at preventing conflict between water users within France’s river basins (Sangarre and Larrue 2004). Though isolated political conflicts do occur between water users within these basins, little of the sustained conflict between geographically concentrated water-user groups or subnational jurisdictions evident in the other cases examined in this book has occurred in France. Even more significantly, the water agency model has proven to be an effective catalyst of international cooperation over water. Under a 2005 law, each water agency is empowered and encouraged to devote 1 percent of its budget to international aid and cooperation projects, and water agencies are twinned with a particular geographic region to encourage water-related technical cooperation. The Loire-Bretagne Water Agency, for example, is twinned with Sub-Saharan African and Southeast Asian countries, while the Artois-Picardie Water Agency takes the lead on cooperative projects with European and Central Asian countries. The agencies themselves served as an inspiration for the European Union’s Water Framework Directive (WFD), which mandates all member states to create basin-wide cooperative governance institutions that include both governmental and civil society participants (Ministry of Environment, Sustainable Development, Transport, and Housing 2014). The internationalization of the water agency model has moreover proved to be self- reinforcing: implementation of the WFD has further enhanced the institutional architecture of the French water agencies and helped spur establishment of the ONEMA (Richard, Bouleau and Barone 2010). By the mid-2010s, the French water agencies had developed into perhaps the world’s foremost example of a cooperative, institutionalized approach to interjurisdictional collective action in shared river basins.