The Paris Water Pavilion is a building at 77 avenue de Versailles in the Auteuil quarter of the 16th arrondissement. It is a building from the nineteenth century that originally housed a steam-driven pump to bring up water from the Seine for the then-independent towns of Auteuil and Passy. It now belongs to the Paris water agency Eau de Paris and is used for expositions on the history and structure of the Paris water system.
Eau de Paris (literally “Water of Paris”) is not some kind of fancy perfume like Eau de Cologne. Rather, it is a city-owned company that is responsible for the acquisition, treatment and distribution of water for the city of Paris.
The first thing you see when you enter the Paris Water Pavilion is a genuine cast-iron Wallace Fountain. Behind it, on a white wall, is the Eau de Paris logo, and under it the words:
Eau. Un service public
Eau de Paris
au Pavillion de l’eau
Water. A public service
Eau de Paris
to the Water Pavilion
The key words here are the ones in the smallest print:
“Water. A public service”.
When I was there in the spring of 2019, the Paris Water Pavilion had just opened a new exposition entitled “Water in the City, from the 19th to the 21st century.” The exposition poster is a collage showing a boy in the early 20th century (in a black-and-white photo) and a woman in the early 21st century (in a color photo), both filling their water bottles from one of the many Wallace Fountains that were set up in Paris starting in 1872, to provide clean water to the population in the difficult period after the Franco-Prussian War.
The exposition included a number of famous historic photos, with and without Wallace Fountains, including this one by Robert Doisneau (1912-1994), showing boys roller staking and climbing on a Wallace Fountain at Saint-Sulpice Square (6th arrondissement) in 1946.
Doisneau (whose name by coincidence has an -eau at the end) was a well-known representative of the loosely-organized ‘humanist photographers’, along with Henri Cartier‐Bresson, Willy Ronis, Jean Dieuzaide, Brassaï, Pierre Jamet and many others. In the Paris suburb of Gentilly there is now a photography gallery named after Doisneau (the Maison de la Photographie Robert Doisneau at 1 rue de la Division du Général Leclerc, 94250 Gentilly), a few hundred meters from the house where he was born in 1912.
When I came across this bust of Eugène Belgrand (1810-1878), I was sure I had seen it somewhere before, but it took me a while to remember where. Yes, of course, this is the same bust that used to be on display in the Museum of the Sewers. Apparently it was lent out from there to the Water Pavilion during the three-and-a-half years when the Sewer Museum was closed for renovation and remodeling.
Eugène Belgrand was a civil engineer who served as the Director of Water and Sewers of Paris from 1855 to 1869. While his boss Baron Haussmann was busy rearranging the surface of Paris, Belgrand was doing the same down below. He greatly enlarged and extended the Paris sewer system and also constructed a system of aqueducts to bring large amounts of fresh water to the city.
In retrospect, the amazing thing about these huge 19th century construction projects is that they were all done without the large machines that we find essential today. All the digging was done by men with picks and shovels, helped only by horse-drawn wagons to transport the debris.
These text panels (with lots of text!) explain the history of the Paris water system in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. Out of all the events mentioned, I was particularly interested in two of the more recent ones:
In 1985, the mayor of Paris at the time, Jacques Chirac, decided to privatize the city’s water distribution system. Without any competitive bidding or call for tenders, two international conglomerates with headquarters in Paris were given twenty-five-year contracts for water distribution: a subsidiary of Veolia for the right bank (north of the Seine) and a subsidiary of Suez for the left bank.
Predictably, water prices rose steadily for the next twenty-five years (faster than inflation or the cost of living) as profits were diverted to pay stockholders’ dividends and executives’ exorbitant salaries and bonuses. Water leakage also rose, as maintenance of the system was neglected. A complicated organizational structure, including a public-private partnership involving both Veolia and Suez, assured that outsiders remained confused about who was responsible for what, and made accountability difficult when things went wrong.
In 2010, the city’s water system was ‘remunicipalized’ when the city-owned agency Eau de Paris took complete control. The conglomerates’ twenty-five-year contracts had expired, and the city’s first Socialist mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, saw to it that they were not renewed. Water prices soon fell by 8 %. Numerous public drinking fountains (in addition to the traditional Wallace Fountains) were installed throughout the city, and long-term projects were initiated to protect and preserve watersheds for future generations. Increased inspection and maintenance of the water pipes reduced leakage, while social programs insured that the entire population, including the poor and the homeless, had access to safe drinking water.
The guiding principle of Eau de Paris, as expressed on its website, is: “Water, a heritage of humanity, is a common good and must be managed in a responsible and unified manner, according to long-term social, environmental, technical, economic and democratic criteria.”
My photos in this post are from 2019. I wrote the text in 2022.