Combating the Coronavirus Without Clean Water

About 3 billion people lack access to basic hand-washing facilities in their homes. Photo by Rupert Taylor-Price/Flickr

As the coronavirus crisis spreads throughout the world, it is increasingly clear that people with the least access to essential services like water will feel the most dramatic effects.

Major health organizations advise washing hands more frequently – for at least 20 seconds – to prevent outbreaks. Yet 3 billion people, 40% of the world’s population, lack access to basic hand-washing facilities in their homes.

And that’s only part of the problem. Nearly a billion people experience only partial access or regular shutoffs even when they do have piped water, making frequent hand-washing difficult or impossible.

Public health depends on secure water resources for all. Governments must take steps to not only expand water access now to control COVID-19, but to create more resilient communities by addressing the root problems of water insecurity.

Immediate Solutions to Increase Water Supplies and Access

The world needs solutions now, like increased access to clean water and hand-washing amenities. Organizations like WHO, UNICEFUN-Water and Red Cross and Red Crescent are ramping up assistance. There are some examples from other disease outbreaks, such as Ebola in areas of Africa, that could provide immediate strategies. For example, one effective approach uses simple two-bucket hand-washing stations, one with a spigot and a mix of water and chlorine to kill viruses and other pathogens, and another bucket below it to capture the used water.

UN agencies, local governments and even private companies are building drinking water and hand-washing facilities in informal settlements, public places and high-traffic areas. For example, in Rwanda, a country where only 5% of the population has access to hand-washing facilities with soap and water, the city of Kigali recently installed portable hand-washing stations at bus stops, restaurants, banks, taxi queues and car parks to stop the spread of COVID-19. In Ethiopia, businesses, restaurants and apartment buildings placed water and soap outside their entrances.

The problem is particularly difficult for the more than 1 billion people living in slums or informal settlements, where overcrowding and low water access can fuel COVID-19’s spread.

UN-Habitat-led network of small-scale water and sanitation service providers, utilities and authorities is offering technical advice, online training and information-sharing on responding to COVID-19. The agency is also engaging community leaders and existing slum networks in trainings, managing hand-washing facilities and disseminating information about the disease. And in Syria, UNICEF’s water, sanitation and hygiene programs are trucking in water for residents in the war-torn city of al-Hassakeh and in camps for displaced persons.

These are encouraging tactics to expand water access quickly and slow the spread of COVID-19. But these are all temporary solutions. What’s also needed to foster resilience to disease outbreaks and other disasters is better water management.

Long-Term Investments in Water Management Can Improve Public Health

Investing in long-term water security and access to clean water and sanitation is essential for public health. Governments should prioritize three strategies:

1. Super-charge investment in clean water access and sanitation.

Experts believe that the capital investments required to meet global goals for water supply, sanitation and hygiene services in low-income countries are at least 3 times current expenditure levels, or approximately $114 billion per year (from 2015-2020). These investments provide the essential foundation for human health to fight diseases like COVID-19, as well as more common maladies like diarrheal diseases, which killed 1.6 million people in 2017 alone.

Funding for water and sanitation not only builds more resilient and thriving communities, but it can bolster local economies. One study in Antananarivo, Madagascar, showed substantial job creation and increased wages from investments in water access, sanitation and hygiene – including everything from construction of water kiosks and laundry blocks, to fixing pipe leaks and clearing drains, to women’s management of water kiosks and laundry businesses. The result was an estimated increase in profits and wages of $2 million.

2. Effectively manage the water resources we have so that ample clean water is available to communities.

Research by WRI projected a 56% deficit in water supply relative to demand by 2030. How countries allocate and manage their available water supplies will flatten or steepen this water deficit curve. Setting water withdrawal limits for industry and agriculture and investing in measures like water-efficient irrigation can help.

Water pollution in many parts of the world is also worsening – even in high-income countries – effectively reducing available supplies and adding to public health problems. Investments in domestic and industrial wastewater treatment and best practices to reduce nutrient pollution from agriculture can protect water for human use. Effective long-term water management policies, alongside targeted policies that increase water affordability and public provision for all, can help prevent the impacts of future water crises on the poor.

3. Massively boost investment in natural ecosystems.

Wetlands, forested watersheds and floodplains are the literal wellspring of abundant clean water supplies. Evidence repeatedly shows the value and economic return of these approaches, but they still receive far less investment than traditional engineered infrastructure. For instance, a WRI paper found that natural infrastructure in São Paulo, Brazil, could reduce soil erosion by 36%, leading to a 28% return on investment through reduced pollution costs. Initiatives like Cities4Forests aim to build coalitions of global communities that can scale and finance big increases in nature-based solutions.

Clean Water for All Costs Less Than You Might Think

This might sound impossible, but recent WRI research found that by spending just over 1% of global GDP – around 29 cents per person per day from 2015-2030 – the world could provide water security for all by 2030. These investments more than pay for themselves: Research shows that every dollar invested in sanitation services yields $6.80 in benefits.

The economic impact of the coronavirus so far is vast, and things are only getting worse in most places. Early estimates forecast that lost output for major economies from COVID-19 may reach $2.7 trillion, and OECD expects global growth may fall to 1.5%. In China, first quarter GDP growth ranges from 5.8% down to -0.5%. By investing in better water management, governments could cost-effectively boost resilience to disease outbreaks by expanding water access.

As places throughout the world come together to fight COVID-19 and rebuild, let’s remember water is a vital tool to strengthen communities and build resilience in the long-term.

This blog originally appeared on WRI’s Insights.

Betsy Otto is the Director of WRI’s Global Water Program. 

 is an Associate for WRI’s Water Program.

 is a Research Associate for Corporate Water Stewardship in WRI’s Water Program.

Marlena Chertock is the Communications Specialist for WRI’s Water Program.

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