Aquafed: a front group for Suez and Veolia?

Aquafed: a front group for Suez and Veolia?

During the Fourth World Water Forum in Mexico City (March 16-22 2006), the most high-profile defender of the interests of private water multinationals was a new lobby group called the International Federation of Private Water Operators, or AquaFed. Already during the opening session of the Water Forum, AquaFed's president Gerard Payen went on the offensive and announced his group's endorsement of “the Right to Water”.[1] By repeating this position throughout the conference AquaFed, launched in October 2005 and with very strong links to the French water giants Suez and Veolia, attempted to co-opt one of the key demands of the civil society movements that oppose privatisation. Whereas activists interpret “the Right to Water” as a commitment by governments to be implemented through publicly owned and managed utilities, AquaFed claims that private water operators “contribute to making the Right to Water a reality every day”.[2] After Mexico City, Payen concluded that “the water community has moved on this topic and we are now talking about implementing it.”[3] Falsely claiming a growing consensus in the water debate, Payen went as far as praising the efforts of the leftwing governments like Bolivia and Venezuela that took the lead in advocating the right to water. The demand “was not in the ministerial declaration because not every country is a signatory of the Convention on Human Rights, fur there was a joint declaration by four Latin American governments and a declaration of all the European governments that recognised that right to water", Payen explained. The AquaFed boss simply ignores that the EU actually opposed including the right to water in the Ministerial Declaration. The EU's position is that water is not a right but “a primary human need”, which is fundamentally different from the vision of the mentioned Latin American governments.

Apart from intensive public relations efforts to present private water multinationals as part of the solution, AquaFed also dedicated substantial resources on monitoring the discussions taking place during the International Forum in Defense of Water, the civil society gathering that took place in parallel to the World Water Forum. This reflects the main reason for Suez and Veolia to establish AquaFed: the serious PR problems which these water multinationals face now that it becoming apparent that the high claims made of privatisation have not been fulfilled. During his time as CEO and chairman of the Ondeo Group (Suez' water division) Gerard Payen orchestrated the company's massive global expansion, including acquiring numerous water concessions in large cities in developing countries. The company's promises have since turned sour and in the last few years, Suez has been forced to withdraw from concessions in cities in Bolivia, the Philippines, Argentina and elsewhere after failing to deliver promised improvements. Despite the PR budgets available to the water corporations, anti-privatisation activists are seen to be winning the public debate.

Aquafed Secrecy

AquaFed engaged in high-profile media outreach and intensive lobbying during the World Water Forum, claiming to represent "over 200 water service providers operating in 38 countries worldwide". Amazingly, the lobby group refuses to disclose who these companies are. After repeated email requests and phone calls in February and March, the AquaFed secretariat rejected the request for a list of member companies, arguing that “the Federation is young and the membership is not stabilised yet”.[4] For industry lobby groups, disclosing the list of member companies is the most basic level of transparency that can expected. AquaFed also fails to disclose its governance and accountability structures, as well as its sources of funding.[5] All of this contradicts and violates the group's own ethics code.[6]

The secrecy obviously leaves a big question about how representative AquaFed is of private water operators. The strong involvement of France-based Suez - and to a lesser extent - Veolia is beyond doubt.[7] Not only is Gerard Payen, the chief architect of Suez' global expansion during the 1990's, president of AquaFed, also Jack Moss, Senior Water Advisor at Suez, represents the lobby group at international events. Thomas van Wayenberge is another AquaFed heavyweight who came straight from Suez. The AquaFed website lists 38 named countries “where private operators that are linked to AquaFed are providing water/sanitation services”, but fails to name the companies. Suez and/or Veolia claim to operate in all the countries mentioned. The UK-based Thames Water, the world's third-biggest water multinational after Suez and Veolia, has publicly confirmed that they decided not to join Aquafed, despite being invited to do so.[8] Until AquaFed proves otherwise, there is reason to assume that Aquafed may represent only Suez, Veolia and their subsidiaries.

After its lobbying and PR offensive during the World Water Forum, AquaFed is likely to focus its lobbying efforts on influencing EU decision-making. While Suez and Veolia individually are already very active in EU lobbying,[9] the water multinationals did until now not have a collective lobbying vehicle specifically aimed at influencing the European Union institutions.[10] Eureau, the prime voice of European water operators, includes both public and private sector companies. This means that its positions on issues like water liberalisation within the European Union, in the context of debates about the Single Market or the 'Bolkestein' Services Directive, are not as clear-cut pro-private as Suez would wish. Establishing AquaFed provides the supporters of privatisation with a more effective lobbying force to influence EU decision-making. With an office at the Rond Point Schuman, in the heart of the EU quarter in Brussels, the International Federation of Private Water Operators (AquaFed) has chosen a very prestigious but also strategic address. This is the most expensive office location in Brussels, but located straight opposite of the European Commission headquarters it is ideal for lobbying purposes.[11] The group has a second office is on avenue Hoche in the centre of Paris.

The group's European focus was already clear in AquaFed boss Gerard Payen's very active role in lobbying to influence the European regional preparations for the World Water Forum.[12] Payen's involvement in this 'multi-stakeholder' process, involving government agencies and a narrow selection of NGOs, included drafting key documents intended to be included in the Forum's Ministerial Declaration.[13] During this work, Mr. Payen was wearing not his AquaFed hat, but that of ASTEE (the Scientific and Technical Association for Water and Environment, the French association of water professionals). It was not made clear to everyone in the process that he is far from an unbiased water technician. A coalition of unions and NGOs wrote a letter of complaint to the secretariat of the European Regional Committee, pointing out that “it is impossible for us to have confidence in a process in which the drafting of key documents is left to the President of AquaFed (the International Federation of Private Water Operators), the lobby group of global water multinationals.”[14] On March 22nd, World Water Day, over 500 trade unionists from different European countries demonstrated in front of the AquaFed offices to challenge the lobby group's attempts to undermine public water delivery systems.[15] AquaFed has already now become a controversial symbol for the power abuse, secrecy and manipulations of the water multinationals whose interests the group was established to defend.

For more information, see also Hall, D. and Hoedeman, O. (2006): “Aquafed - another pressure group for private water”. Public Services International Research Unit (PSIRU), Univ. of Greenwich, UK.


  1. Gérard Payen's statements on the "Right to Water and the Role of Local Governments" during the opening seession of the World Water Forum.
  2. AquaFed press release, March 19 2006: "Private Water Operators call to turn the Right to Water into a reality for all People"
  3. Payen quoted in "Making sense of Mexico City", box titled "Three steps forward", Global Water Intelligence, April 2006 (article transcribed from a telephone conversation with Gerard Payen of AquaFed).
  4. Email from Thomas Van Waeyenberge, AquaFed, March 2 2006. On file with Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO).
  5. The group's presentation brochure mentions that AquaFed has an Executive Committee appointed by a General Meeting, but there is no information about either of these on the AquaFed website.
  6. AquaFed's 'Code of Ethics' (dated 11 July 2005) was completed three months before AquaFed was officially presented. The code of ethics states that AquaFed “will collaborate with other public and private bodies, paying attention to the requirements of transparency, legitimacy and also respecting the needs for confidentiality where these arise”. It appears that Aquafed is treating its own membership and finances as confidential issues.
  7. Gerard Payen held these positions in the French water giant between 1995 and 2002. See also Payen 's CV on the AquaFed website.
  8. Sir Paul Lever, director of Thames Water, speaking at a Watertime workshop 25th November 2005 at University of Greenwich. See also Hall, D. and Hoedeman, O. (2006): "Aquafed - another pressure group for private water". Public Services International Research Unit (PSIRU), Univ. of Greenwich, UK.
  9. Suez often brings in heavyweights like former European Commissioner Yves-Thibault de Silguy, who is now Senior Executive Vice President of the Suez Group in charge of International Affairs and Institutional Relations. He is a former European Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs.
  10. On the global level, AquaFed is far from the only lobby group defending the interests of the private water industry. The World Water Council, the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) are examples of other powerful pro-privatisation players.
  11. Annual rent per square meter at the Rond Point Schuman starts at 285 euro, excluding service costs and tax.
  12. Website "European regional preparations for the World Water Forum".
  13. Advanced draft versions of these documents, posted on the website of the European Regional Committee, originated from Payen's computer. "Draft European input to Ministerial Declaration" and "Draft European annex to Ministerial Declaration", in the download section of www.wwf4europe.org
  14. The NGOs also complained that "outreach to and inclusion of civil society has been very limited and the draft position papers therefore fail reflect the opinion of a broad range of European stakeholders". Email to Jeroen van der Sommen, European Regional Coordinator, January 20 2006. The letter to the EU negotiators was signed by a dozen of groups, including Friends of the Earth France, World Development Movement (UK), the European Federation of Public Service Union (EPSU), Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), Transnational Institute (TNI) and Bread for the World, Germany.
  15. "European Water Workers mark World Water Day with protest against water privatisation plans", European Federation of Public Service Unions, March 2006.