GENEVA (28 March 2024) – UN experts* today expressed concern about recurrent water cuts in the French overseas department of Guadeloupe, which are exposing the population to water pollution and excessive water prices that threaten their human rights to drinking water and sanitation.

“A dilapidated network, leaky pipes, defective treatment plants and faulty billing software – among other malfunctions – are the result of many years of negligence by private operators, local authorities and the State,” the experts said.

The UN experts found that more than 60 per cent of water in Guadeloupe is lost through leaks before it reaches the taps, resulting in enormous waste.

“Water supply is intermittent in order to reduce losses, with systematic cuts, in shifts, in the different sectors of the network, in addition to longer cuts,” they said.

The experts stressed that one of the most serious consequences of these interruptions was the systematic contamination caused by the infiltration of pollutants through leakage points every time the pressure in the water distribution network is removed. Despite claims from the French Government that there is no evidence of systematic water contamination, the experts warned that systematic cuts occurring in a network with such a high leakage is proof and physical evidence of systematic contaminant intrusions in the water distribution process.

“The situation is particularly serious for the most disadvantaged, as this is the French department with the highest water prices in the country,” they said.

The experts noted that some of the country’s water tables are overexploited and at risk of salinisation due to falling water levels.

Tropical Storm Philippe and Hurricane Tammy affected more than 100,000 people last October. “There is an urgent need to strengthen the current system’s resilience to natural disasters, which will become more frequent and more severe as a result of climate change,” they said.

The experts stressed that the continued presence of chlordecone, a toxic and persistent pesticide, in Guadeloupe and Martinique is having a significant negative impact on the human rights of the population, including the rights to health, water and sanitation and to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. To date, 90 per cent of adults in the French West Indies are contaminated with chlordecone, resulting in the highest rates of prostate cancer in the world.

“France must take responsibility by ensuring that the contamination does not continue to spread and putting in place compensation measures for the entire population affected,” they said.

The experts noted that ambitious plans and important budget proposals set out by the French Government to address water problems in collaboration with local authorities must include a broad process of social participation.

“Water has become a sensitive issue, difficult to discuss freely, and several actors denouncing the dysfunctional water system are at risk,” they said.

Following the ban issued at the last-minute on the debate on water in Guadeloupe – organised by Antilles University and to which the Special Rapporteur on water and sanitation had been invited –, the experts expressed deep concern over reports of censorship to silence critical voices, including human rights defenders, whistle-blowers, and scientists.

“Water is a fundamental issue, and everyone deserves access to a thorough understanding of how it works and to exercise the right to participate freely in shaping public decisions and policies,” they said.

The experts are in contact with French authorities on these issues.

*The experts: Mr. Pedro Arrojo-AgudoSpecial Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitationMs. Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expressionMr. David R BoydSpecial Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environmentMr. Marcos A. Orellana, Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes and Ms. Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders.