France: escaping insecurity

Published on Thursday 21 October 2021

Since March 2020, SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL has been working in France with people living in precarious settlements with limited access to drinking water, sanitation and basic hygiene products. Our teams’ ultimate goal is the social integration of the people they support and the clearance of these unfit dwellings.

In March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic was progressing very rapidly in the Île-de-France region, SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL intervened, in cooperation with Médecins du Monde and the Veolia Foundation, in several slums in the region, where access to water and sanitation was almost non-existent and where overcrowding gave rise to fears of rapid spread of the virus. Our teams installed temporary water points and distributed soap, hygiene kits and baby kits while disseminating key awareness-raising messages. The organisation later extended its work to other precarious settlements in France. Eighteen months later, SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL has a broad understanding and a precise analysis of the problem of lack of access to water, sanitation and hygiene in France.

Poor housing

Inadequate or non-existent access to these basic services is closely linked to the housing conditions in which the people concerned find themselves. For example, people living in slums, camps or squats have to resort to “system D” to get water. In concrete terms, this means walking hundreds of metres to fetch water from fire hydrants, public water points (such as parks, cemeteries, gymnasiums and stadiums) or buying bottled water (which is extremely expensive), and therefore carrying dozens of litres of water over very long distances, either in their arms or with the help of shopping trolleys pushed along roads that are often not passable. These situations generate health and safety risks: people frequently have to cross roads and railways, and the jerrycans used, which sometimes come from farms, may contain residues of plant protection products. Some people even use water from nearby streams.

Relieving oneself poses an even greater challenge. Because they have neither latrines nor sanitation facilities, people living in these precarious settlements have no choice but to defecate in the open air. This is particularly problematic for women and children when they have to go out in the middle of the night. In addition, there is a lack of showers and means to obtain hygiene products. This has dramatic health consequences for these people: they suffer from numerous skin diseases and infectious diseases. “Certain pathologies result from a lack of access to feminine hygiene products.

  • 67 million inhabitants
  • 14.7% poverty rate
  • 36% out of 189 on the Human Development Index
  • 5 380 people helped

Period poverty is a scourge that affects many women living in these precarious settlements. The solutions they resort to are undignified. This state of affairs is a considerable obstacle to the integration of women and can lead to some young girls temporarily dropping out of school,” says Manon Gallego, coordinator for SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL programmes in France.


Faced with this alarming situation, SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL proposes an intervention based on three strategic axes. The association responds to immediate needs by installing drinking water supplies in the precarious settlements and distributing family hygiene kits. At the same time, it strives to improve living conditions in the targeted sites. This involves our teams making safe drinking water connections and, where possible, installing toilets and showers. “These improvements are all temporary, and it is important to us that they are temporary. We do not want these sites to become permanent. On the contrary, our intervention creates the necessary conditions for their clearance, which is the ultimate goal. Indeed, having enough water for all the uses of life, and in particular for personal hygiene, is a central factor in contributing to people’s sense of dignity and self-worth. Being clean improves one’s chances of success at work and at school, and therefore favours social integration in the medium term,” emphasises Manon Gallego. These actions were carried out in the Île-de-France region and in the cities of Lille, Nantes and Toulouse. Technical support was also provided to institutions and associations in Bordeaux, Grenoble and Grande-Synthe.


The third strategic axis consists of implementing technical advocacy with the aim of changing French law in order to guarantee access to water and sanitation for as many people as possible. “To do this, our teams are promoting, on the one hand, a normative definition of access to safe water and dignified sanitation and, on the other hand, clarification of the legal vagueness surrounding the roles and responsibilities of the various public actors in terms of access to water, sanitation and hygiene for people who are not connected,” reports the programme coordinator. Finally, SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL intends to support the transposition into national legislation of the European Directive on the quality of water intended for human consumption of 16 December 2020, which commits Member States to taking “the necessary measures to improve or maintain access to water intended for human consumption for all, in particular for vulnerable and marginalised groups […]”. This advocacy work, like our field intervention, is carried out in coordination with other non-profit actors within the framework of the Water Coalition* and institutional actors such as the DIHAL (Interministerial Delegation for Housing and Access to Housing) and the DEB (Water and Biodiversity Directorate of the Ministry of Ecological Transition and Solidarity).

The actions undertaken address a major challenge: a 2019 WHO/UNICEF report indicates that 2.1% of the French metropolitan population, i.e. 1.4 million people, do not have access to safely managed water, and 12% do not have access to safe sanitation facilities. The response to these needs is all the more urgent as the repercussions of possible climate shocks (such as a heatwave, pressure on water resources or severe frost) in the coming years could be very serious for the French population and especially for the most vulnerable.

*Coalition Eau (Water Coalition) is a movement of French NGOs committed to access to water and sanitation for all, of which SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL is a member.

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