The right to access drinking water and sanitation in France by 2023: persistent delays

Closing of the UN Water Conference in New York March 2023

The human rights to drinking water and sanitation were recognized by the United Nations General Assembly Resolution of July 28, 2010 (resolution 64/292), which acknowledged that “the right to drinking water and sanitation is a human right, essential for the full enjoyment of life and the exercise of all human rights” and called on States and international organizations “to provide financial resources, capacity-building and technology transfer, through international assistance and cooperation, in particular to developing countries, in order to intensify efforts to provide safe drinking water and sanitation services that are accessible and affordable to all”.

Despite this international recognition, supported by France, the human right to water and sanitation is still not fully reflected in French legislation. While the 2006 Water and Aquatic Environments Act (LEMA) stipulates that “every individual, for food and hygiene, has the right of access to drinking water, in conditions economically acceptable to all” (article L 210-1), the article fails to meet the ambitious requirements of the right to water and sanitation as recognized by the United Nations. Despite a promise of transformation “Leave no one behind”, which is at the heart of the Agenda 2030 and speeches, the challenges of access to water reflect inequalities as strong as ever, particularly with regard to marginalized and discriminated groups.

At a time when climate change is having a strong and rapid impact on the availability of water resources, the rights to water and sanitation must be protected, respected and implemented without discrimination. According to the right to water and sanitation criteria, water and sanitation services must be “sufficient and available at all times, safe and of acceptable quality, accessible physically and financially, and without danger“. Each state bears the primary responsibility for guaranteeing the application of these rights on its territory. In developed countries such as France, the challenge is to implement these rights for everyone, including people in precarious or excluded situations.
To achieve this, France must incorporate the human rights to water and sanitation into its national legislation. They must be enforceable, so that they can be the subject of legal recourse.

Lack of access to water for the underprivileged

While 99% of the population has access to a water supply network and 99.7% of French people have a toilet at home (Insee), access to drinking water and sanitation in France remains problematic for people in precarious situations.

Today, there are 330,000 homeless people in mainland France and 100,000 living in makeshift dwellings (28th FAP report), who by definition depend on water supplies outside their homes (public fountains, fire hydrants, surface water, etc.).

According to the Fondation Abbé Pierre, in its 28th report on inadequate housing :

330,000 people are homeless
100,000 people live in makeshift housing, including around 20,000 in shantytowns (DIHAL figures) [1].
208,000 “Travellers” are living in poor housing conditions, or without access to a place in designated reception areas [2].
2090,000 people live in very difficult housing conditions, with deprivation of comfort [3].

Thanks to the Observatoire des droits à l’eau et à l’assainissement (DHEA), it is possible to observe major geographical disparities across France in terms of access to public water and sanitation infrastructures. But there are also disparities in terms of support from decision-makers, often depending on the goodwill of local decision-makers, as well as the existence of a strong and coherent interasso (such as the Collectif Action Bord’Eaux in Bordeaux).

Solidarités International slogan: “water can’t be earned, it’s a right”, on a vehicle used for field actions for access to water in France.

Situations still critical:

The situation of human rights to water and sanitation is critical for people living in the DROMs (Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Reunion, Martinique and Mayotte): water is not always available or continuously accessible there, it is expensive and often unfit for consumption. A 2013 CGEDD report noted that the French Overseas Territories are “40 years behind in implementing water and sanitation policy”. With rates of access to water and sanitation well below those in mainland France, some territories face challenges similar to those in developing countries. In some French overseas departments, a significant proportion of the population suffers from frequent water cuts throughout the year.
In Mayotte, 31.5% of families are without running water, and 17% of their budget goes on paying water bills. 4 out of 10 homes are made of sheet metal.
On Reunion Island, 46% of users are supplied by networks that do not guarantee satisfactory sanitary safety.
Martinique and Guadeloupe are experiencing numerous daily water restrictions and turns, as well as chlordecone poisoning.
The situation of people living in exile on France’s northern coast is the most critical in mainland France in terms of their right to water and sanitation. This coastal area is one of the main crossing points on the migratory route, with many people in exile for short periods. According to local associations, the number of people exiled to the North fluctuates between 1,000 and 3,000 every year, and includes single men, women, families and unaccompanied minors. Although the extremely precarious living conditions of these people have been widely known to the authorities and reported in the media since 2016, no satisfactory measures have been taken by the authorities to guarantee access to water, hygiene and sanitation that is sufficiently dignified or meets at least the international humanitarian standards used in crisis situations (SPHERE standards).

New water access standards since 2023
In January 2023, the European “Drinking Water” Directive 2020/2184, Article 16 of which provides a framework for access to drinking water for vulnerable and marginalized populations, was transposed into French law with the publication of an ordinance and an implementing decree. The aim is to “guarantee access to water intended for human consumption for everyone, even in the absence of a connection to the public water distribution network, including people in vulnerable situations linked to social, economic or environmental factors”.

These new texts now take account of people and groups of people who have no access to drinking water, or insufficient access, in particular those who are homeless or living in precarious and informal housing (squats, shanty towns, camps). [4]

Many people on the island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines do not have easy access to clean drinking water at home. The Mindanao Basic Urban Services Sector project, funded by the Asian Development Bank, is helping to change this situation.

NGO expectations :

  • Recognition of the right to water and sanitation by France
  • Ambitious implementation of Order no. 2022-1611 of December 22, 2022 on access to and quality of water intended for human consumption.
  • A normative definition of access to drinking water aimed at harmonizing approaches and establishing a common standard that is up to the task.

The issue of affordability

More than a million households have difficulty paying their water bills: 1,210,000 tenants with unpaid rent or service charges (a consensus exists among OECD countries considering that the price of water becomes unaffordable when this bill exceeds 3% of effective household income) (Enquête Nationale Logement 2013, Fondation Abbé Pierre calculations).
The right to water implies that access to drinking water must be affordable for all. A consensus exists in France and OECD countries that the price of water becomes unaffordable when this bill exceeds 3% of effective household income. Today, on average, the water and sewerage bill represents 1.25% of a household’s average disposable income (around €4 per m3, or €500 for a 120 m3 bill).
People whose water bill exceeds this 3% are mainly the unemployed, single people, pensioners and rural water users. The latter may also find it difficult to finance the upgrading of their on-site sanitation facilities, which are subject to the regulations governing Non-Collective Sanitation. While 97.6% of collective sanitation systems were compliant in 2017, efforts are still required for non-collective sanitation, where the level of compliance is only 58.4% [5]. To date, this compliance (sanitary and environmental standards) remains the responsibility of each household (between €5,000 and €15,000) and many households are unable to finance it, even though they already pay as part of their water bill a share concerning the sanitation of the water consumed.
In 2018 the government made a commitment during the Assises de l’eau to introduce a national water voucher. This measure has still not been implemented. Until 2019 and the Commitment and Proximity law, the doctrine was that of a single water price. Since then, local authorities have been able to help poor households pay their water and sanitation bills. Article 15 allows for the adoption and implementation of social tariffs in water service regulations. However, this remains at the discretion of the local authority and its decision-makers.

So it’s a step forward, although a number of obstacles remain. If it is possible to create a social water tariff, one question is who will be responsible for implementing this measure at local level. This implies having access to various types of information. However, various confidentiality rules make it difficult to access the databases used to identify beneficiaries. The administration and its various departments pass the buck when it comes to disseminating this information. Finally, there is an a priori exclusion of people without rights or titles from aid mechanisms, i.e. this is aimed at people registered in distribution systems, and not at those being “where they have no right to be” (typically the homeless or people in atypical habitats).
The French Ministry of Ecological Transition has published a toolbox to help local authorities roll out their social water policies, with fact sheets on the main social water policy measures, existing social assistance, etc.

Solidarités Intrenational has made access to water its main battleground in France and abroad, as here in Kerson, Ukraine in 2022.

NGO expectations:

  • Deployment of preventive assistance for paying water bills throughout France.
  • A definition of what constitutes an “affordable price” for water and the maximum percentage that should not be exceeded in relation to a household’s total income.

Lack of data

The situation of people without access to water and sanitation is largely invisible and largely unknown to the general public. It is difficult to put a precise figure on the populations affected by this physical lack of access to water and sanitation, as there is no national survey providing data on the availability of public water and sanitation facilities.
To date, no French indicator exists to monitor these two targets, which are essential to achieving MDG 6. Existing statistical tools do not allow us to analyze the problems of water poverty and lack of connection to the water and sanitation network for certain populations (migrants, the homeless, people living in makeshift housing), nor the exacerbated problems of access to water and sanitation in the French Overseas Territories [6].

This lack of follow-up means that we are unable to provide appropriate responses, and leaves part of the population out in the cold. The French state must strengthen its accountability in this area by creating suitable indicators and collecting regular data on access to water and sanitation for all people present on its territory, including those in situations of great precariousness [7].

NGO expectations :

  • Increase the visibility of water and sanitation access issues in France, and gain a better understanding of situations.
  • Detect and quantify the number of people with inadequate access to sanitation in France.
  • Produce quantitative and qualitative data on situations of lack of physical and/or affordable access to water and sanitation in France.
Photo courtesy of the United Nations Office for Project Services UNOPS

Sandra Metayer and Edith Guiochon – (Coalition Eau)

Coalition Eau
Coalition Eau is a collective of French NGOs committed to the human rights to water and sanitation and to water as a common good: