By Xavier Lauth, Emergency Desk Manager and Manon Gallego, Operations Coordinator France, SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL.
The COVID-19 epidemic prompted SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL to start working on access to drinking water, sanitation and hygiene in France. Here, the NGO presents its analysis of current difficulties, based on several months of observations and field operations, and proposes a range of methods to improve this very acute situation.
In March 2020, as the COVID-19 epidemic was rapidly gaining ground, SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL took action in several slums in the Ile-de-France region, in partnership with Médecins du Monde and Veolia Foundation. Access to water and sanitation in these slums was virtually non-existent, and there were fears that the virus would spread rapidly in these overcrowded conditions. Our teams installed temporary water points and distributed hygiene kits. The NGO then extended its operations to other makeshift sites elsewhere in France. Following two years of field operations and cooperation with numerous governmental and local partners, SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL is now able to share its initial observations and propose several key measures to improve conditions.
Our first observation is that the situation is alarming: many people in France have to cope with very poor access to basic services, which are well below humanitarian standards. Conditions sometimes even resemble those during certain humanitarian crises. People living in slums, squats and camps mainly rely on “informal” systems to obtain water and have no other choice but to relieve themselves in the open air. In addition to inadequate access to water and sanitation facilities, they also lack showers and have no means to purchase hygiene products.
Secondly, there is no local or national consolidated data on actual drinking water access for the most vulnerable people in France, and the French overseas territories are “forgotten” in the few reports that are published. This lack of data hinders advocacy efforts and underlines the fact that water is not yet considered a major social issue.
The third observation, which is just as shocking as the first two, is the legal vacuum surrounding this topic. There is currently no standard definition for secure access to water and decent sanitation facilities in French legislation.
What is the minimum quantity of water that every person living on French soil should have access to by right? What is the “acceptable” maximum distance to the closest water point? How many people can be “served” by one water point? The same questions must be asked regarding sanitation, for which no standards exist either.
Moreover, there are still legal grey areas surrounding the roles and responsibilities of various public entities to provide water for people who are not connected to water supplies. This means that water access for slum dwellers is provided at the discretion of public authorities and local associations, who lack clear information on which solutions can be deployed to uphold the universal right to water. To help them implement appropriate measures, SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL has put its expertise to work and provided the French government with technical support to design several practical tools: frequently asked questions, a toolkit and technical instructions. But these efforts towards improving basic services for all must not detract from an urgent need: the establishment of a clear governance model and a legally binding document that defines the responsibilities of each stakeholder to provide drinking water for people who do not have a water connection.
These tools for action clearly contribute to public health, but they also have a major social impact. Ensuring that everyone has access to drinking water makes it possible for people without a water connection to make plans beyond their immediate, vital needs, facilitating their social integration and helping to clear the makeshift sites where they live.