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The COVID pandemic exposes water access inequalities

As I write this, more than 200,000 cases of coronavirus have been detected worldwide, and nearly 9,000 deaths reported. The virus is wreaking destruction in developed countries. In the global South – countries in Asia, Africa and South America – the transmission rate is slower, but the next few weeks are crucial to bring it under control.

Hand washing, as per the World Health Organisation’s directives, is the frontline defence that is the most effective way to prevent the spread of disease. However, that is a problem for three billion people who don’t have access to water, sanitation and hygiene facilities, also known as WASH facilities. In the days to come, we will witness the most water-stressed countries struggle to cope with the pandemic.

With World Water Day on March 22, it may be appropriate to discuss how to ensure safe WASH facilities to those in the global South, where the health infrastructure is inadequate to deal with the current crisis. While social distancing applies for people working in the organised sector, many economies in transition have millions of poor – especially in urban locations – who work in unorganised sectors. How do we keep them safe without hampering their livelihood as daily-wage earners?

Global situation

Fortunately, the coronavirus has not been detected in drinking water and conventional water treatment methods can remove it. However, to stop it from spreading, emphasis has been placed on sanitation and hygiene. And to ensure this, one needs access to safe water.

The Joint Monitoring Programme report of the United Nations Children’s Fund and the World Health Organisation, Progress on Drinking Water, Sanitation and Hygiene: 2000-2017, states that one of three people globally do not have access to WASH facilities. Though significant progress has been made towards achieving universal access, there are still huge gaps in the quality of services provided.

According to the report, 2.2 billion people around the world have not been able to access water and and 4.2 billion people to sanitation services. Around 3 billion lack basic handwashing facilities, putting them at extremely high risk of contracting Covid-19.

Regionally, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Central and Southern Asia are most vulnerable as a large proportion of their population have limited or no access to handwashing facilities. If we couple the global data on handwashing with access to water, we see a significant overlap, and eight out of ten people are still lacking even basic services. Nearly half of them are the world’s poorest, living in the Least Developed Countries, landlocked developing countries, and small island developing states.

Many have access to water, but don’t necessarily handwash as a basic hygiene practice. This isn’t just an educational issue. When there’s not enough water for drinking, hand washing becomes a secondary concern. People have to make hard choices about how to use the available water.

This inequality gap is a glaring example of who will be at risk in the next two-four weeks when the virus is expected to spread in the global South. The health infrastructure in these locations is already under pressure.

Challenge ahead

Some countries, like India, have deployed strong measures to combat this global pandemic – including free medical help and quarantine facilities for affected people, identifying residents at risk, and isolating them. The Indian government’s directives to close schools, public places, and requesting people to self-isolate are vital measures to ensure the virus does not spread. But once we are past the immediate crisis, countries in the South need to spend a significant amount of their budget in providing access to WASH facilities.

This problem is set to worsen. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 1.5 Special Report shows that 80% of the world population is already experiencing water scarcity – many in the global South. Climate change alters temperature, rainfall, and humidity, and as a result, increases the risk of disease transmission and the rise of vector-borne infectious diseases. Deaths caused by vector-borne diseases are about 300 times higher in developing countries than in developed countries. A warming planet and a less resilient ecosystem imposes a bigger threat for public health.

A sizeable investment in WASH infrastructure should be a priority for countries that are in hotspot risk regions. This means more funding for household access to tap water, sanitation and hygiene education.

Our vulnerabilities have been exposed, so now we must see countries enact strong policy measures for providing access to WASH facilities to the world’s most poor and vulnerable communities. Addressing this also means reducing water demand from other sectors. For example, the volume of water used directly in the energy sector is considerable, representing approximately 15% of global freshwater withdrawals in 2010. Transitioning quickly from water-intensive coal power plants to renewables that don’t need water will reduce water stress and help limit temperature to under two degrees Celsius.

The Covid-19 crisis highlights that globally, we are as strong as our weakest link. We must take care of the planet and the most vulnerable, which will ensure a safe environment for all.

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