wasteland city network legislation


Water as a Common Good in Brussels


original article published in: Bridges over troubled waters, Crosstalks, VUB press, Brussels 2012, p223-231- "L'eau comme bien commun à Bruxelles", Dominique Nalpas & François Lebecq


The era in which we are living seems to leave us ever more fasci­nated with technology, this great human endeavor that has the power to free us from the yoke of nature or that makes human beings an extension of the creator. And yet, with water, we seem to maintain an astonishing relationship: we project on water a desire, an ideal of purity and natural virginity far removed from technical complications and other social contamination. We could be tempted to say, “Cover these impure waters so that we may not see them,” to paraphrase the famous repost of Tartuffe to Dorine. In reality, the clear, pure water that apparently arrives so naturally and drinkable in the heart of the city only comes at the cost of increasingly sophisticated and expensive technology. Water is a hairy1 object that is tightly woven into social, environmental, economic, and political complexity.

In fact, water has been invisible in our city for a long time. It is a black stain on our urban development policy, repulsed by our imaginations and our concerns as citizens. And like many other elements that we don’t want to see realistically, it risks resurfacing, like the return of the repulsed, to manifest itself ever more painfully from crisis to crisis. Which is why the headlong rush towards more technology – in the name of progress – resolves some questions while posing more, and never exhausts the need to render the management of this precious resource more visible and more conscious, therefore more collective, more common... Let’s say it another way: technology and society can only exist in a complex combination of integrated interdependence. Water, like climate, is a fact of nature, but also a social, economic and political fact that merits better understanding if we wish to keep it as a common good.


The lost language of water

The disappearance of water in Brussels dates back more than 150 years. Everyone knows the story about vaulting the rivers in this city, which now has almost no water in the open air. From the time when the city’s rivers ceased to be economically attractive and by contrast became rubbish dumps, they were destined to become sewers2. Covered, they permitted the drawing of communication lines, but also in the manner of Haussmann, the strengthening of social control. Moreover, public fountains disappeared with the arrival of water in homes. In essence, water from its input to output was channeled through pipes. Having become largely technical, water disappeared from public space.

Public awareness of the disappearance of water from our imagination and our environmental or political consciousness emerged after the crisis of the storm basin on Place Flagey in late 2001. At the bottom of the Maelbeek Valley­, floods became increasingly frequent and it was necessary to guarantee local inhabitants that their cellars would be preserved in the future. The public authorities entrusted the concocting of a solution to minimize flood risk to engineers. In a beautiful continuation of history, and convinced of their volumetric calculations, these engineers adopted the technical solution of a storm basin. The principle is simple and seems obvious at first sight. It involves retaining excess water during torrential rainfall in a vast underground basin that buffers and ejects water into the drainage system downstream when the storm episode is over. However obvious this may appear, it is nevertheless a solution of ‘always more of the same thing’: the storm basin is the top technical choice for not challenging the view on the city we create. The city has long repulsed water, but with the storm basin, it even repulses its rage. We will not go into further details on that dossier. Suffice to say that its undemocratic assemblage, chopped up in every sense in order to avoid numerous environmental studies, was the trigger. And especially, the imposition of technology in the dense urban tissue has not been the object of public debate.


A matter of urban planning

This crisis generated the formation of a citizens’ movement, which attempted to raise the question of alternatives to the storm basin. It only took a few clicks of the mouse on Google to learn that storm basins in urban areas were no longer used in Germany and the Netherlands. A local conference was quickly organized3. Architect-ecologists4, hydrologists, etc., were swift to propose alternative solutions. Above all, observations and the basis of several principles were defined.

If floods accumulate in the bottom of the valley, it is because the ground upstream is becoming increasingly impermeable. Studies clearly show that this is a major phenomenon in Brussels5. Thus to combat flooding, it is not about acting centrally where water is a problem, but acting in a decentralised manner where the water falls on the entire watershed upstream of the problem. Multiple, and often simple, technical solutions can be implemented both at parcel and road levels: water infiltration, evaporation and evaporation-transpiration that slow the flow and offer many additional uses. Moreover, examples from elsewhere show that these strategies can be creative, can embellish the environment, often in a participatory manner, and can regenerate vegetation in the city. This decentralized and participatory perspective opens up a new more global perspective, that of “watershed solidarity”6. More importantly, such an approach that does not only rely on the symptoms (flooding) but also the causes (impermeability of surfaces), fosters a wider debate on the type of city we want in relation to nature. The question of water leaves its technical pipes to become a matter of urban planning. The engineer is no longer alone!

So, for the first time a public debate was held in this city around these questions7. Water timidly returned to daylight. Years have passed and work on the watershed of the Maelbeek is slowly but inexorably changing, based on collective movements spontaneously acting together8. It was in this valley that the concept of Nouvelles rivières urbains (NRU) or ‘New urban rivers’ was born9.


Defining water as a common good

But the circle is still far from closed. A second critical moment is coming: that of the Brussels North water treatment plant. This crisis is to the Region what the Flagey storm basin is to the Maelbeek valley. We are reminded of that famous moment when, in the heart of winter 2009-2010, Aquiris, the company managing this water treatment plant – a Public Private Partnership (PPP) between the Brussels-Capital Region and the French multi-national Veolia – unilaterally decided to expel untreated water back into the Senne River, amidst a huge media storm and against the backdrop of environmental blackmail. For many, this episode was representative of the current global confrontation between the public and private management of water. It symbolized every element of that confrontation: the commodification of water versus water as a common good.

Based on the observation that in public/private confrontations, the private tends to win10,the idea of the General States of Water in Brussels (EGEB) was born. The EGEB should be seen as a vast, hybrid ‘citizen and expert’ questioning of water policies at the crossroads of two currents of thought and action: on the one hand, urban and territorial, developed through collective action, and on the other, globalized around the notion of water as a common good11. At the root of EGEB is the idea that the State has every interest in creating partnerships with citizens. For almost one year, from April to November 2011, the EGEB accompanied the public inquiry into the Water Management Plan conducted by the Brussels Capital Region and in parallel, assessed the hypothesis that a new vision of water management as a common good was possible as long as it covered the whole territory from an eco-systemic perspective12.

But is water a common good? At the starting point of this reflection is the idea that water is a vital element and therefore it cannot be the object of any kind of commodification. The characteristic of common good conferred on water is intrinsic to its nature and does not depend on social and economic conditions to define it as such. It is a defensive definition and therefore it is up to the public authorities to manage this common good... From this perspective, water is a public common good. A more fundamental definition joins this rather transcendental approach: water is a common good if it is truly managed in common. Here, the definition does not depend on the nature of the good in question, but on the mobilization of collective action towards a shared goal of sustainability. It is not necessary at present to choose between these two definitions. They successfully cohabit in tension: one induces the other; one deduces the other.

Insisting on this notion of common good is not new. It arose in recent years, particularly after the American economist Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize for economics in 2009. Basing her reflection Governing the Commons13 on historical, sociological, and anthropological records, etc. this author demonstrates that individuals are capable of inventing ingenious and effective ways of managing resources under common ownership. Her case studies “explode into a thousand pieces the belief – firmly rooted among political analysts – that the only way to solve the problems of managing common resources is the imposition by an external authority of a centralized regulation or complete privatization of these resources.” As Ostrom demonstrated, such solutions create “a clever mix of private and public means.” This position counters the theory of Garrett Hardin, which in The Tragedy­ of the Commons14 seemed to offer “an overwhelming argument in favor of the effectiveness of private property with respect to land and resources, thereby serving as a compelling justification for privatization.”15


Participatory water policy in Brussels

It is around the theory of common good and collective action that Proposals for Participatory Water Policy in Brussels is articulated. Many workshops have helped dozens of people to build this position that can be synthesized around five approaches, five outlooks16. We will not address all of them here, but we will look at a few of them

Water as a common good supposes a link to territory, to geography. Poetically put, if water has shaped the landscape, let the landscape shape water policy. The idea here is that the unifying geographical element for water management would be the watershed, by the simple effect of gravity. Water crosses all kinds of borders, land parcels, administrations, municipalities, etc. This approach is corroborated by the work of several urban planners around a sustainable and polycentric city17 and it reinforces the idea that territorial planning lies at the heart of water management.

Water as a common good supposes a questioning of technology. To paraphrase Clemenceau18, water is far too serious a matter to be left to the water operators and technicians. Technical choices are always questionable and always refer back to a human design. For example, to reduce flooding, compensatory measures such as NRU should not be see as annexes to the storm basin, but as part of an increasingly diverse array of possible solutions.

Water as a common good supposes that it is truly managed in common. This is a corollary of the previous point. What we observe in our models of technological democracy is that water is far removed from the everyday concerns of citizens, except when they receive an invoice or find themselves knee deep in it. This is because citizens fully delegate water management to politicians, who themselves delegate in most cases to the administration, which often delegates to technicians, or even the private sector. Since this common good is not only the business of specialists, it is necessary to reopen common dialogue spaces with policy makers, technicians, water operators, researchers and citizens. Together, they will promote the emergence of collective intelligence and a global vision on the question of water in its environment, permitting a more collaborative and open decision-making, and this at many levels of local and global action.

Water as a common good supposes that the public authorities pay for it. Today, water is paid for by the consumer in the mis­understood perspective of ‘total cost recovery’ improperly translated as ‘water pays for water’. But is it correct that the consumer should pay for the huge amounts of rainwater that need to be managed? The question is highly complex, but the current simplification that places the total burden of cost of water on the user is misleading and reinforces the technical and economistic dimensions of this approach.

Water as a common good supposes collaboration across borders. The watershed in which Brussels is located suggests interdependencies with other regions upstream and downstream. More importantly, as a political actor, the Brussels Capital Region should be able to influence European decision-making that defines the binding framework of water policies.

At this stage in this journey, we can say that EGEB has extracted water a little more from its pipes to make it a subject of public debate. What has been tested, at least intellectually, shows that there is a need to produce spaces for experimentation and hybrid forums at multiple levels. We now need to build real and practical experience over time. The water question in Brussels is just one manner to re-politicise environmental issues as advocated by Bruno Latour19. Let’s face it, we’ve artificialised the planet he tells us. Instead of not wanting to mix humans and non-humans in a frantic search for pure nature, create hybrid assemblies that make these elements real common goods, is what we say. All the signposts are pointing towards large-scale experimentation.

And I leave the conclusion of this article to EGEB: “At the end of this loop of thought and action, we have a hunch: that the commodification of water, which is certainly based on a strong ideological idea, arises from the fact that all levels of action around this common good are segmented, from local to international. Rampant opportunism is asserting itself in our collective inability to shape the pragmatic management of this natural resource.”


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