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:

Interview with Stéphane Romatet

Director of the Crisis and Support Center (CDCS) at the French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs

Alain Boinet (A): Hello Stéphane Romatet. You’re Director of the Crisis and Support Center (CDCS) at the French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs, and we’d like to thank you for this interview with Défis Humanitaires magazine.

Stéphane Romatet (S): Hello Alain. It’s a great pleasure, especially as I’m an avid and regular reader of the magazine!

A: Thank you! So, you’ve been in post for 2 years now, and you’ll soon be leaving again as ambassador to Algeria. How have these 2 years with the CDCS been?

S: Two exceptional years of intensity and commitment for all the teams I’ve been lucky enough to work with. They’ve also been two years of crises, which we’ve had to manage on both the security and humanitarian fronts, as these are the two core businesses of the CDCS. These years were obviously marked by the war in Ukraine. I arrived at the CDCS just as Kabul fell, and we all remember the shock of the Taliban takeover of Kabul. Our commitment – that of France, that of the Quai d’Orsay, that of the crisis center – is particularly evident on the humanitarian front with Ukraine, but also in the countless humanitarian crises to which we have had to respond: in Africa, in a very difficult context, in West Africa, in East Africa, with the recent earthquake in February 2023, which was destructive for southern Turkey and northern Syria, the evacuation of French nationals and many foreign communities from Sudan, and the obviously humanitarian response to the tragedy that Sudan is currently experiencing… So many events, two years that have gone by very quickly. I have the feeling I arrived the night before last.

A: You mentioned the two main activities of the CDCS. Could you describe them more fully for those who aren’t familiar with them?

S: We are indeed a “crisis and support center”. In other words, we are responsible for dealing with any crisis situation that threatens the safety of French nationals abroad. We are also a support center, and as such we are responsible for France’s emergency response to all types of situations, particularly humanitarian disasters. We take action in all areas, from transport accidents to ecological disasters, as seen with the forest fires that ravage certain parts of the world, for example in Chile and Canada, where we send protection and civil security elements. The crisis center’s mandate is to implement France’s emergency response to humanitarian crises.


A: To carry out these missions, I discovered that there was a great diversity of professions and skills within the CDCS. Can you tell us a bit about that?

S: Yes, the CDCS is a team well versed in crisis management. There are around 120 of us who make up this crisis and support center, which operates 24 hours a day, because crises don’t stop at night or at 6pm on a Friday evening. So we need to be able to anticipate and react to crises at all times. We’ve seen this again in recent days with the events in Russia, which have obviously put us on our toes. Our team is highly multi-disciplinary, and includes not only diplomats, but also a large number of staff recruited on a contract basis with specific profiles. In the humanitarian field in particular, some of them come from the NGO world. Also, as we are responsible for inter-ministerial crisis management abroad, some of our staff come from other ministries: the armed forces, the interior, justice, health, etc. So we are a very multi-disciplinary, young, highly motivated and very committed team, available to manage crises 24 hours a day, wherever they may occur in the world.

A: I recently discovered that you even have a magistrate, a health team…

S: Yes, when we’re faced with a crisis situation we need to have all the necessary skills and tools. Today, what has impressed me in my experience as Director of the CDCS is that the crises we are faced with are not “one-off” crises, they are complex crises, which first of all have a security dimension that requires us to protect our compatriots, our communities, but they are also crises with a strong humanitarian impact, often crises with a health dimension that requires us to have a health response capacity, and also crises that very often result in massive population displacements, refugee crises. Take a look at all the recent crises we’ve managed at the crisis center over the past few years: they have all the characteristics of multi-dimensional crises, and I believe that this is what will guide our work in the future, as well as that of the humanitarian world. It’s this need to be able to respond to crises that are not simply crises of destruction at a given moment, but long-term crises, which include both a health and humanitarian dimension of relief for highly vulnerable populations, but also crises with a climatic impact or effect, and lastly, and I’m also saying this more and more, crises that provoke massive population displacements, to which we also need to respond. So it’s precisely in this increasingly complex engineering of crises that we at the CDCS need to have both the skills but also, obviously, to work with NGOs who are in a position to provide these increasingly complex responses.

A: During this 2-year period, the resources and capacities of the crisis center have increased considerably, particularly in the humanitarian field, but not only. How did this happen and what is the current situation?

S: My predecessors, and Alain too, have made the observation that France talks a good game when it comes to humanitarian issues, but doesn’t have the resources to implement its policy. We have to give credit to President Emmanuel Macron, who at the National Humanitarian Conference in December 2020, preceded by a government meeting as part of an inter-ministerial committee for cooperation and development, decided to set a new course for France’s humanitarian policy and to invest in becoming a major player in the humanitarian field. Where we were in reality a humanitarian power… I’d say marginal, thanks to the financial efforts we’ve made over the last few years, we’ve become a recognized humanitarian power, in Europe and around the world. A few years ago, France was the 8th largest donor in Europe. While we are Europe’s 2nd largest country in terms of economy and population, we were 8th in terms of humanitarian aid! Thanks to this effort, we are now ranked 3rd. We still need to amplify our efforts, and go even further. On a global scale, we were also at the bottom of the rankings, and thanks to France’s investment in its humanitarian policy, we have become a member of the 10 Major Donors club. So this effort, this investment made by France, enables us first of all to carry a stronger voice, to be a credible player and also gives us the means, thanks to the partnerships we have with NGOs, to respond to crises and to finance NGOs, I believe, in line with their expectations and requests.

A: Among the crises you’ve had to deal with, could you give us some examples to help us better understand the role of the CDCS in extreme emergency situations?

S: I think the perfect example, because it still marks the current situation, is obviously the Ukrainian crisis. This crisis is a good illustration of what the CDCS does. First emergency: on February 24, 2022, Russian troops invaded, Russia attacked Ukraine, and the crisis center’s immediate priority was to ensure the safety of our hundreds of compatriots still in Ukraine. This kept us busy day and night for the first 4 or 5 weeks of the crisis. Very quickly, we realized that the Ukrainian crisis was also a humanitarian crisis: firstly, inside Ukraine, where there were practically 5 to 6 million displaced people leaving the conflict zones to take refuge in the West; and secondly, outside the country, there was also a migration and refugee crisis, as 7 to 8 million Ukrainians decided to leave Ukraine to flee the war and its destruction, heading for Poland and other European countries. So France’s humanitarian response had to take into account both the war situation, which created difficulties for NGOs in particular, and the fact that it was a very high-intensity war, with the Russian army resorting to war crimes. We had to intervene in an extremely complicated conflict zone, but we also had to intervene inside Ukraine and the surrounding countries: Moldavia, Poland etc… and we did this in particular thanks to some forty logistical operations that the crisis center set up on its own. You may remember the operation we called “A French boat for Ukraine”, which enabled us to send hundreds and hundreds of tons of humanitarian freight to Ukraine. We also did this, of course, with the NGOs we financed, so that those who were still able to act in Ukraine could intervene in the fields of health, demining, sheltering vulnerable populations and so on. But today, almost 16 months after the outbreak of war, we are still in a situation where we have to continue our humanitarian action, probably preparing for the consequences of the coming winter, while at the same time beginning, if not the beginnings of reconstruction, at least the start of Ukraine’s recovery from the multiple destructions it has suffered. This is a fine example of what we can do. The CDCS has financed a number of operations to uncover war crimes and sexual crimes committed by Russian aggressors, as this too is part of our mandate.

A: France’s humanitarian architecture is largely based on the French Republic’s humanitarian strategy, the humanitarian emergency fund, the humanitarian consultation group with NGOs, and the forthcoming National Humanitarian Conference (CNH). What is your assessment and what are the prospects for the future?

S: It’s true that over time, thanks to the network you mentioned: the humanitarian consultation group, the preparation of the National Humanitarian Conference… a structured dialogue has been organized between the humanitarian world, represented by the NGOs, and the State. This dialogue has its place, all the more so as the resources devoted to humanitarian policy by France have increased considerably, so we need to have an even more sustained dialogue. We mustn’t forget that we are in a context where the basis of humanitarian aid, what we call international humanitarian law, is now being challenged. Not only is it being contested, it is being called into question: access to conflict zones is sometimes denied to humanitarian organizations, the protection of humanitarian workers is no longer guaranteed, and the legitimacy of NGOs to intervene in war zones, in zones of humanitarian crisis, is sometimes even challenged by a number of countries. This is particularly true in the Sahel, where Mali has decided to expel NGOs. So it’s clear that everything that humanitarian action has built up through international humanitarian law is now being profoundly called into question, and this obviously has major consequences for NGOs’ ability to simply do their job. So all this is part of the discussion, the dialogue we have with NGOs, and as we speak, we need to take into account all these factors to prepare for an important event: the 5th national humanitarian conference, which will take place in autumn 2023, the last having been held in December 2020. Three years on, the aim is both to take stock of what has been achieved, of the previous humanitarian strategy implemented by France, and above all to map out the future. We expect this to be an opportunity for the President of the Republic to announce the ambitions he has for France in the years to come, in terms of the objectives and resources that will be devoted to France’s humanitarian action.

A : Well, international humanitarian action is currently facing a serious lack of resources in relation to emergency needs. VOICE, the NGO Humanitarian Coordination, reports a funding shortfall of $24 billion, which is enormous. What could France do within the European Union, and within the United Nations, of which France is a member of the Security Council, to find solutions so as not to leave too many people on the side of the road without help when they are really in danger?

S: You’re right, the situation is grim: more and more people are in humanitarian distress, and the response is far from adequate to meet their needs. You gave some figures: it’s often said that the world’s humanitarian needs are estimated at between $40 and $50 billion a year. However, the humanitarian resources available, i.e. the humanitarian resources allocated by States, represent less than $20 billion, so there’s a gap of around 50%. How can we close this gap? First of all, we need to try and deal with crises in order to reduce the number of people in vulnerable situations, which means anticipating crises and resolving conflicts. Clearly, it is the disappearance of conflicts that will eliminate the causes of the vulnerability of these populations. This obviously requires political initiatives, and is a long-term process. A second response is to increase resources, since humanitarian needs will remain extremely high in the years to come. France is playing its full part in this, but today I believe that 90% of the resources devoted to humanitarian policy in the world are provided by European Union countries and the United States, so we probably also need to expand the number of donors and the number of countries. We need to convince them that humanitarian action is obviously a noble thing for a country, but it’s also a necessity, because populations in vulnerable situations, conflicts or humanitarian crises that we fail to resolve, are the seeds of tomorrow’s instability. Let’s also do our part, to convince a certain number of countries – I’m thinking in particular of the Gulf States – to invest in humanitarian aid.

A: The crisis and support center is celebrating its 15th anniversary today, so to speak. How would you like to conclude this interview?

S: It’s a great age! It’s an age of promise, and at the same time, even if it’s far too early to take stock, it’s also an age of achievement. In 15 years, the CDCS has achieved a great deal, building and developing itself through very intense crises, each of which has marked a new stage in its development. It is also the very significant increase in resources devoted to humanitarian aid that has led us to ask ourselves a lot of questions about who we are, and to transform ourselves a lot too. We know that tomorrow will be worse than today, and that we’ll have to deal with ever more serious crises that are also ever more intertwined, the security aspect and the humanitarian aspect, one merging into the other in a way, so we always have to be on the alert, on the alert, in action. So I think the CDCS needs to prepare itself for these coming years, which will be difficult ones given the multiplicity of crises, but with the formidable teams at the crisis center, I’m really confident that we’ll be there every time, as we have been in all the crises we’ve been entrusted with managing in recent years.

A: Thank you Stéphane for this interview!



Activity repport 2022 Centre de Crise et de Soutien



Stéphane Romatet

Ambassador, Director of the Crisis and Support Center, Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs