HAMBURG — When Natalie Leroy talks about this German city's water, her voice changes. It’s as if it was bubbling directly from the holy spring in Lourdes, not from one of the thousands of faucets in Hamburg.
"It's just water..." you might want to tell her, but then you would be getting it totally wrong.
“Our drinking water is a public service. It is essential, and it is the best food that you can get in Germany,” the 40-year-old declares.
Leroy recently became the CEO of the public company that handles Hamburg’s water and all of the water delivery, as well as the city's sewer system and waste treatment. So she occupies a decisive spot when it comes to the future of Hamburg’s venerable water works.
Privatization is unthinkable
Leroy was born in Paris and has a French passport next to her German one in her purse. And she wants to ensure that the water system in Hamburg continues to be managed by the city government.
The European Union has been trying to encourage the liberalization of local water markets across the continent. In practice, that could lead to cities no longer being allowed to control their own water, forcing them to have open bidding on supplying the city water.
For Leroy, this is unthinkable. “Right now we have to wait and see what the actual regulations will look like. But in Hamburg, the water supply is very efficient, high quality and affordable. Why should we change anything here?” she asks with the clear French accent that's stuck even after 17 years living in Germany.
Though her words are what you might expect from the leader of a city utility, Leroy’s past tells a different story. Indeed, she has actually just changed sides.
Looking at Berlin’s example
Before moving to Hamburg at the beginning of the year, Leroy worked at the private Berlin water company Veolia, where she was a part of the company’s leadership team. Berlin has taken a different path than Hamburg, and has privatized a part of its water system. There were lots of stakeholders and always plenty of anger.
Now Veolia has 24.9 percent of the market. The capital’s water prices have risen, so much so that the Federal Anti-Trust Office has declared them excessively high. But the Berlin government doesn’t trust itself to lower the water prices, because the private companies have a guaranteed profit equalization.
Leroy places the blame with politics, not the structure of the private companies. “They were obviously too swept away by their own expectations about privatizations during the negotiations,” she says.
The basic conditions have to be right
A carafe of water is on the table in the slick conference room at the waterworks’ headquarters. Leroy point to it. “That belongs to the community’s public services. The community establishes the basic conditions for that service. If those conditions are right, the structure of the water company is of secondary importance.”
Politics does not have a place in water companies, she says. “That is why Hamburg’s model is an example for others,” Leroy says. “Politics establishes the framework and sets the water price, but does not interfere in the operation of the company. The company functions economically, but pays attention to quality and the needs of its clients.”
Leroy lets out a hearty laugh. She laughs a lot.
A Herculean task
Leroy started working in the water industry in 2005, after growing frustrated with the monotony at, of all places, a film studio. “It was always the same. The films were different, but the production was always exactly the same.” Working with the water in Hamburg is much more demanding.
“I have to ensure that everything works and that the best quality water is delivered to the population,” she said. That is a difficult task. Depending on the season, water consumption in Hamburg is between 250,000 and 400,000 cubic meters per day.
In addition, the 5,400 kilometers of water pipes have to be kept in good condition. The 5,500 kilometers of sewer pipes likewise need maintaining.
When she’s not thinking about water, Leroy is getting to know Hamburg after living in Berlin for years. She and her husband live with their two children in the outskirts of Hamburg. She doesn’t miss France, except for one thing. “There is only one thing I miss from France: good cheese.”