Skip to content
April 1st, 2016
Health • Energy

The French water management agencies

In 1964, the French defined a water management framework which resulted in the creation of six water agencies. They have been charged with improving water quality so that it meets the requirements of the EU water directive of 2000. They work together with government, industry, farmers and civil society to protect the blue infrastructure of France – its groundwater, freshwater rivers and lakes, and the extensive coastline – and the water supply to citizens.

The initiative

The six French water agencies set the following priority targets in seeking to attain good water status:

  • “Reducing polluting discharges from all sources. [4]
  • “Guaranteeing water quality.
  • “Fostering the sustainable development of the economic activities that made use water.
  • “Protecting and rehabilitating aquatic environments and wetlands.
  • “Regulating water flows (natural flood areas and river maintenance).
  • “Furthering urban-rural solidarity with respect to wastewater treatment and drinking water.
  • “Promoting humanitarian solidarity and international cooperation.
  • “Informing the general public and raising the awareness of the public and of schoolchildren about managing and sustainably protecting water and the aquatic environments.”

As part of their objective to achieve and maintain the required level of water quality as specified by the WFD, the water agencies had four main priorities, to:

  • Combat water pollution.
  • Restore the aquatic environments.
  • Manage and distribute water resources in anticipation of climate change.
  • Take action to protect the coastline environment.

The water agencies, which are state structures, signed an agreement with the ministry in charge of sustainable development to meet these objectives. The water agencies also have an administrative role in meeting WFD standards, to:

  • “Lead the development of the programme of measures and the river basin management plan … [5]
  • “Lead a working group of stakeholders for the identification and cost-efficiency assessment of measures.
  • “Ensure the development and dissemination of documents.
  • “Ensure the reporting to national level (in order to prepare EU reporting … )
  • “Take part in the international districts working group.”

The water agencies' funding comes from the fees collected from water users, such as consumers and businesses. These environmental tax revenues amount at present to roughly €1.8 billion a year.

The challenge

The Law of 16 December 1964 defined the legal framework within which France has organised water management. Six water agencies were created to carry out water management, at the river basin level. “The Law of 3 January 1992, called ‘the Water Law', laid down the principles of true integrated water management: … (water is the ‘common heritage of the Nation').” [1] Water policy overlaps with a number of issues such as health, urban planning, flood prevention, coastline environment protection, and adaptation to climate change.

On 23 October 2000, Directive 2000/60/EC [the EU Water Framework Directive] (WFD) established a framework for European Community action in the field of water policy. “Directive 2008/105/EC [the Environmental Quality Standards Directive] (EQSD) set the quality standards as required by Article 16(8) of the Water Framework Directive.” [2] As required under EU law, “the Law of 21 April 2004 [was] transposed the WFD into French law.” [3]

Member states were required to take action to meet the EQSD quality standards by 2015 (although it appears that none met these targets). To this end, a programme of measures (set out in Article 11 of the WFD) had to become operational by 2012. Under these conditions, the role of the French water agencies became crucial.

The public impact

The water policy implemented by the water agencies has had a positive environmental impact. Currently, 41 percent of natural waters have achieved a water quality status of “good” or “very good”. The French water agencies are internationally recognised as providing an effective water management structure. In 2000, the EU created its river basin district model on the lines of the French model.

Stakeholder engagement

In October 2014, a symposium on water policy was held in Paris, led by the ministry of ecology, Ségolène Royal. It gathered national and local water management actors: representatives from agriculture and industry, NGOs and civil society, and scientists.

Water agencies provide technical support to farmers, industries and municipalities to build water treatment facilities and wastewater disposal equipment.

They have partnerships with local structures. For example, on1 April 2016, the water agency of Loire-Bretagne signed a partnership with the National Forestry Office to protect the water resources in public forests in the watershed of Loire-Bretagne. The French water agencies also work with international partners, such as Bulgaria and Vietnam, to develop solutions abroad.

Political commitment

Several government ministries are involved in water policy: principally the Ministry of Environment, Energy and the Sea (Ministère de l’Environnement, de l’Énergie et de la Mer), but also the Ministry of Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs (Ministère de l'Économie, de l'Industrie et du Numérique) and the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health (Ministère des Affaires sociales et de la Santé).

Public confidence

The water agencies hold public consultations in order to gauge public opinion about their products and establish what water-related issues are important to local people. 30,000 people participated in the last consultation exercise (December 2014-June 2015) and the results showed that, for the most part, the public’s views aligned with the goals of the agencies. “Les participants montrent une réelle préoccupation concernant l’avenir de l’eau et des milieux aquatiques. (Participants show real concern about the future of water and of aquatic environments.” [6]

Clarity of objectives

The objectives are clear and the outcomes are measurable (high levels of water quality, combating pollution, sustainable projects and public awareness). A report from the Ministry of Sustainable Development described precisely the objectives in terms of water quality, and in any case France had a legal obligation as an EU member state to meet the water quality standards of the WFD by 2015.

Strength of evidence

The ability of the French water agencies to meet the requirements of the WFD (and the Law of 21 April 2004, which transposed the WFD into French law) are made easier by the fact that, in the opinion of the International Office for Water (from 2009) the WFD had “extended to all Europe the principles of basin management developed in France for more than 45 years”. [7] Therefore, the legal framework was the one that the French had applied internally since the Law of 1964.

The Law on water and aquatic environments of 30 December 2006 reinforced the French water policy, one of its objectives being to “provide the means for achieving the goals of the WFD”. [8] This brought the French water policy closer to the WFD and meant that it was directed towards the water quality goals for 2015.


The objectives of the water agencies are financially, legally and technically feasible.

They have an annual income of €1.8 billion from water users' bill payments in addition government funding, which will support them in meeting WFD goals by 2018. “The municipalities are responsible for the water and sanitation public services. They finance the water utilities (with subsidies from the water agency) and the price paid by households (and firms connected to public network) has to cover the investment and operating costs according to a specific law (M49) ... The measures targeting industry and agriculture [in their use of water)can be also subsidised by the water agency.” [9]

The French legal framework is entirely supportive of the water agencies in meeting the water quality objectives of the WFD. Furthermore, the WFD itself used the French method of water management as a model (see Strength of Evidence above).


Democratically elected municipal, departmental, regional, and state governments  all have roles to play in the management of the French water agencies. While overarching policy decisions are made at the state level, management “is decentralised at the level of the large river basins”.

Municipalities manage the public drinking water supply and sanitation. Departments are involved in protecting natural environments and the development of water supplies to rural areas. At the state level, policies are coordinated by the Ecology Department, in addition to the interministerial body called the ‘Mission for Water'.


The national Water Information System (WIS) is gathers together all the data required in measuring water quality and related indicators. The WIS consolidates data on, for example, “the hydrometry of rivers and hydrology, quality of rivers and coastal waters, ... groundwater quality, [and]programmes for monitoring water status. [10] [This enables:]

  • “Monitoring the status of the resource and aquatic environments ...
  • Developing the management plans and Programs of Measures.
  • Evaluating public policies, plans and programmes.
  • Reporting to Parliament, the European Commission or evaluation organisations (OECD, European Environment Agency, Eurostat, OSPAR, etc.) ...
  • Following up the implementation of the European directives, the European Water Framework Directive in particular.
  • Reporting to the European reporting system (Water Information System for Europe - WISE).”

The WIS enables the agencies to measure the status of water resource and aquatic environments.


The different actors cooperate in French water management and in working towards the water quality goals set by the WFD. They gather during symposia (see Stakeholder engagement above) and operate in concert with the relevant ministries. The French government works well with the water agencies to oversee their work.

The water agencies work closely with farmers and industry to improve water quality.

The Public Impact Fundamentals - A framework for successful policy

This case study has been assessed using the Public Impact Fundamentals, a simple framework and practical tool to help you assess your public policies and ensure the three fundamentals - Legitimacy, Policy and Action are embedded in them.

Learn more about the Fundamentals and how you can use them to access your own policies and initiatives.

Explore the Fundamentals