OPINION: Irregular water supply and COVID-19 are a bad combination

Tuesday, 16 June 2020 15:34 GMT

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

Ensuring more people at risk have a steady supply of water could help with the pandemic - and other threats

Hassan Aboelnga is vice chair of the Middle East Water Forum, on the management committee of the intermittent water supply specialist group at the International Water Association, and a water security task force member at the International Water Resources Association.

Wash your hands with soap often under running water for at least 20 seconds: This is probably one of the most-uttered pieces of advice by World Health Organization (WHO) and other health organizations to protect against coronavirus (COVID-19).

The COVID-19 pandemic is revealing another humanitarian crisis that is afflicting millions of people across the globe - the lack of safe, affordable water. One in three people worldwide do not have access to safe drinking water. Ensuring the availability of safe water for all is clearly essential to keep up the fight against the spread of COVID-19 and future pandemics.

The COVID-19 pandemic is prompting questions for the water sector globally and especially in water-scarce regions, including the Arab world and in Africa,  as well as for many slum dwellers who live in homes without running water.

Around the globe, water is not available all day, every day, and safe water availability varies widely between and within countries.

Those without water have to queue at taps, sometimes with the additional burden of not knowing when water may come. There are already about 1.3 billion people globally receiving water less than 24 hours a day - so-called "intermittent water supply" (IWS). That is almost one-fifth of the world’s population, with another 500 million people approaching this situation.

Such intermittent supply is a widespread problem in piped systems in both urban and rural contexts around the world. In addition to being an inconvenience for users, IWS is leading to adverse impacts.

Those can include water quality degradation and public health problems, increased leakage and accelerated wear and tear o systems, illegal use of water, lowered service quality, and ineffective demand management.

COVID-19 adds an extra layer of complexity to existing water challenges. For the 1.3 billion people who suffer from IWS, interruptions to the water supply are nothing new. But the COVID-19 pandemic brings into sharp relief the unexpected increase in water and energy demand with the risks of inequality of access to water, lower water quality and wear and tear on the system due to IWS.

Both energy and water shortages can compound each other. Without energy, some water systems are unable to pump water to people. The power grid is constantly in use, but the demand on the grid is much higher in summer.

The peak summer energy demand with COVID-19 in many countries may double the strain put on the grid any other time of year. That and heatwaves, mismanagement or lack of maintenance could lead to energy blackout that in turn produce water outages and low-water quality, as well as disrupted communication and social upheaval.

Public resilience and vulnerability depend on risk awareness, preparation, and coordination, and response measures to assure safe drinking-water and hygiene on a daily basis.

To respond to the current pandemic in a resilient way, ordinary measures won't work. The COVID-19 shock is so extreme in its duration and intensity that it is simply impossible to address it through simple adaptation of systems.

In some countries - like Bahrain and United States - the government has stepped in to help cover the cost of water bills, or suspended water shutoffs for residents unable to afford their water bill.

COVID-19 in countries with intermittent water supply jeopardizes the ability of countries to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal on providing access to safely managed water for all.

The COVID-19 pandemic could be the spur needed to aggressively pursue better water security - but it is unlikely to happen without shifting intermittent water supplies toward becoming continuous ones.

Like dealing with COVID-19, solving global water challenges is not easy. But there is no more urgent a time to address the world’s water crisis than now, when people are constantly being reminded to use water to combat the spread of the virus.