OPINION:- Coronavirus - wake-up call to ensure water and sanitation for all

by Hassan Aboelnga, Amgad Elmahdi and Olcay Ünver | University of Kassel and TH Köln
Thursday, 26 March 2020 10:45 GMT

A student washes her hands after clean up at a school in Abuja, Nigeria March 20, 2020. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Today, many people lack access to the most basic weapons to shield themselves from COVID-19: water and soap.

Hassan Aboelnga is a PhD researcher at University of Kassel and TH Köln, Germany.

Amgad Elmahdi is the head of MENA region at International Water Management Institute. 

Olcay Unver is Vice Chair of  UN-Water. 

The coronavirus has now reached the pandemic stage and continues to spread globally, and hand washing is the most important precaution by health authorities to stop the virus. COVID-19 is a deadly reminder that inclusive water supply and sanitation matters for all of us.

Today, many people lack of access to the most basic weapons to shield themselves from COVID-19: water and soap. UN-water reports that  2.2 billion people around the world do not have safely-managed drinking water, while 4.2 billion go without safe sanitation services and three billion lack basic handwashing facilities. Furthermore, an  estimated 896 million people use health care facilities with no water service and 1.5 billion use facilities with no sanitation service. These conditions present a constant source of stress and disease, particularly for vulnerable and marginalised communities where people sometimes need to skip bathing to save water for cooking.

As the virus moves to low-income countries and water scarce regions, we're deeply concerned about the future of sustainable development and the impact it could have among vulnerable populations with no access to basic water services.

With this in the background, we are unfortunately still trying to solve new problems with old solutions and our past experience turns to be our worst enemy about shifting our mind-set. We are still heavily investing in linear systems, big pipes in and big pipes out” transfer model, which aimed to protect public health and avoid nuisance impacts using large-scale technological solutions for narrowly defined service problems. We continue to work in silos; our policies are set without aligning objectives with the required resources; we count on public funds that are insufficient and poorly targeted; and the new sources of finance for water and sanitation constrained by regulatory, institutional and other barriers.  Our ambitious strategies for water and sanitation services are hampered too often when they are not accompanied by proper consideration for how or by whom they will be implemented, and how they will be financed. 

Safe water, sanitation and hygiene, collectively known as WASH, are crucial for human health and well-being. When the world moved from the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) to Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) in 2015, the governments set the WASH performance bar higher, shifting the target from basic to safely managed services. COVID-19 outbreak has taught us the vital importance of the access to safely managed WASH services by all. The increased investment needed, shown by the orange bars in the figure, is high, but not unachievable, particularly given the cost of inaction. The action to be taken has to be a holistic one, incorporating interlinkages between sectors, particularly with food and agriculture, environment and public health, and taking into account co-benefits and trade-offs.

Cost of Extending WASH Access under SDGs (2016–30) Compared with MDGs (2000–15), (World Bank, 2017)

At a time when the world has acknowledged a grave need to significantly accelerate progress in achieving SDGs and climate-related targets, the COVID-19 outbreak should be a wake-up call for all of us that the economic and social costs of failure will likely be catastrophic. For those who say we can’t afford the immense efforts necessary to achieve these targets, think about the human and economic losses prompted by a single event, may mean, and multiply that many times over. 

A new paradigm is therefore needed that turns this approach on its head and change the way we manage and finance water and sanitation. It is not only about money; solving wicked water and sanitation problems requires creativity and innovation to turn risks into opportunities, providing fit for purpose solutions, and reducing the high level of non-revenue water in drinking water and agriculture, providing strong governmental leadership and accountability, as well as recognizing the role of communities, acknowledging multiple knowledge cultures, and accepting the inevitability of uncertainty. An acceleration framework for SDG number 6, ‘water and sanitation for all’, bringing together strengths of various stakeholders and strongly anchored to the acceleration of the SDGs in general, informed by the lessons learned during the COVID-19 crisis, will be an essential tool for that.