Public v. Private Water: A French Executive Tastes Both In Berlin And Hamburg

More than water
More than water
Martin Kopp

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.”

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Saving The Planet Is Really A Question Of Dopamine

Our carelessness toward the environment could be due, in part, to the functioning of a very primitive area of our brain: the striatum.

Ad scuba-diver and brain coral

Stefano Lupieri

PARIS — Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Addictions to sex and social media

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the 'pleasure hormone.'

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

Transverse section of striatum from a structural MRI image

Lindsay Hanford and Geoff B Hall via Wikipedia

Tweaking genetics 

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Les Echos
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