Will COVID-19 provide the impetus for Zambia to realise the human rights to water and sanitation for all?

7 min read
L-R: Fostina Siankwanga, 43, Ruth Ng’andu, 52, Rabecca Siamalula, 26 and Dina Chiyanika, 30, standing beside a scoop hole, the only source of water in Mabula village, Kazungula District, Zambia, February 2019.
Image: WaterAid/ Chileshe Chanda

As in many other developing countries, in Zambia, COVID-19 is magnifying the effects of years of underinvestment in water, sanitation and hygiene services. Pamela Chisanga and Chilufya Chileshe discuss the urgent case for the Zambian Government to take this opportunity for action on the human rights to water and sanitation.

Since 18 March, when the first two COVID-19 cases in Zambia were announced, just under 13,000 people have tested positive. The effects of the pandemic on the country’s social life, economic activity and public health are already visible and can be expected to continue for a long time.

The impacts on the economy are expected to be harsh. Zambia’s economy was under stress long before the advent of COVID-19, with an inflation rate of 15.7% by the end of the first quarter of 2020, and the currency depreciated by more than 20%.

In many of Zambia’s communities, COVID defence is extremely difficult

A good amount of media coverage is now dedicated to what it means to live in informal, high-density areas in view of advice to stay at home and maintain physical distancing. Social media commentaries and webinars are over-supplied with discussion about the practicality of the stay home strategy, when the home does not have enough space to physically distance or self-isolate, or the facilities to practise good hygiene.

In many communities, basic services such as toilets and water points are meagre and often shared by several households. Zambia is said to be the third most urbanised country in Southern Africa. Up to 40% of urban dwellers reside in informal urban and peri-urban settlements such as Kanyama, Chibolya or Misisi Compounds, with limited basic services and scarce opportunities to reverse their fortunes. Hence the concerns regarding whether the majority of people can adhere to COVID-19 prevention guidelines are real and urgent.

The economic powerlessness and social underdevelopment of the dense urban and rural circumstances in which many people live mean they often lack access to water, sanitation, healthcare, or safe or secure housing. Kanyama, a large informal settlement in the heart of the capital Lusaka, has a population of more than 130,000 people. More than 80% of families in Kanyama do not own the house they live in, and most use shared pit latrines and collect their water either from a shallow, unprotected well or communal water points. The average house size is approximately 8m2 for a family of six.

WaterAid Zambia launches a universal handwashing facility accessible for people with disabilities to use, as part of our COVID-19 response.
WaterAid Zambia launches universal handwashing facilities that are accessible for people with disabilities, as part of our COVID-19 response.

COVID has highlighted service deficiencies – Zambia’s Government must step up

Ten years after the UN General Assembly resolved to recognise the human rights to water and sanitation, the Zambian Government must face up to these glaring deficiencies in access to basic services laid bare by COVID-19. There is need to address the vulnerability of groups such as homeless people, sanitation workers, sex workers and people with disabilities, to contain the spread of COVID, avert future pandemics and improve their quality of life.

Although these challenges are known and widely acknowledged, the impact of years of limited investment on critical sectors such as water, education and housing is now strongly felt and likely to have long-lasting, crippling effects. For instance, inadequate investment in education infrastructure means that many public schools are unlikely to meet basic COVID-19 prevention guidelines. Overcrowded classrooms and lack of or inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services will make it difficult for schools to adjust to the new reality and may keep children away from school longer.

WASH financing has been neglected for more than a decade

WaterAid Zambia’s assessment of WASH financing found that WASH has not been prioritised. For ten successive years up to 2018, the sector was allocated 0.1–0.3% of GDP. Less than 40% of what was allocated was actually disbursed.

The need for increased financing of WASH emerges with the country’s annual cholera outbreaks. Although pronouncements are made to address this, little is done let alone sustained beyond the response phase. A Multi-Stakeholder Cholera Elimination Plan was developed in 2019, with more than 60% focus on WASH. Disappointingly, the national budget for 2020 makes no provision for its implementation.

COVID-19 has underscored the importance of hand hygiene and water supply in particular. Handwashing is an effective way to prevent the transmission of diseases, including COVID-19. The challenge is how to make changes in hygiene behaviour lasting and impactful on disease prevention and quality of life when WASH services are badly lacking. Pre-COVID data show that nearly two in five households did not have water and soap. Similarly, two in five healthcare facilities lacked both at points of care.

Sarah Chilima, an Environmental Health Technician, prepares to disinfect a pit latrine to prevent the spread of cholera, in Lusaka, Zambia.
“It is frustrating to teach better hygiene practices knowing at the back of your mind that even clean water is not constantly available.” Sarah Chilima, an Environmental Health Technician, disinfects a pit latrine to prevent the spread of cholera in Chipata Compound, Lusaka, Zambia.
Image: WaterAid/ Chileshe Chanda

Key actions the Government must take

At the heart of this barrage of challenges is the overall slow pace of human development and the human rights often ignored. The rights to water and sanitation are crucial because, like the right to development, they guarantee that human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realised.

Tangible Government actions in this direction need to be evident. Coupled with transparency about how public resources are applied toward this end, the Government must take actions that champion five main areas as follows:

  • Prioritise WASH to bring immediate remedy to issues of unclean water and decent toilets. This means ensuring infrastructure is in place for clean water to be provided in homes, public institutions and under-served areas. The ten-year anniversary of the rights to water and sanitation this year must be marked by evident steps to change the current poor record. As Human Rights Watch eloquently articulates, lack of sanitation is not only an affront to individuals’ dignity and rights, but endangers the rights to the highest attainable standard of health and to safe drinking water of other people because of the contaminating nature of human faeces when indiscriminately disposed of.
  • Invest in infrastructure that serves people in situations of vulnerability and marginalisation. To practise good hygiene and handwashing for the recommended 20 seconds, everyone – including homeless people, traders and people in transit – relies to some extent on public toilets and water stands. These have yet to make it to the priority list of infrastructure development in our country. Handwashing stations are limited or non-existent in public spaces and institutions such as healthcare facilities or schools. When available, they are often in a deplorable state, non-functional and often with no soap or reliable water supply.
  • Make social, economic factors that relate to women’s safety, empowerment and development centre stage now and in the long term. COVID-19, like other crises, has increased the pressure on women’s time through domestic work and caring responsibilities. Ensuring enough water is collected easily and affordably for increased handwashing – in addition to cleaning, food preparation and childcare – tends to be the responsibility of women.
  • Provide social safeguards that ensure no Zambian is destitute or goes to bed hungry, and children are not continuously victim to the stunting effects of malnutrition and repeated bouts of diarrhoea. The current social protection programme needs to be scaled up, with special consideration for children in vulnerable households in peri-urban areas, and take into consideration cost of access to clean water and sanitation services.
  • Create an environment where citizens can access information necessary to practise good hygiene, demand accountability and access services essential for their development. COVID-19 presents an opportunity for the Zambian Government to rebuild confidence and trust. Better transparency and accountability for resources will enhance a sense of fairness in their distribution. This loss of confidence has impacted on donor support despite the need for development assistance remaining high.

Financing is essential for a COVID-19 response that caters to human rights

Recognising the enormity of the task, we join others in calling for a restructure of the global financial architecture to ensure that there is an influx of significant financing necessary to enable developing countries, like ours, to have the space to respond to COVID-19, and ability to adequately transform policy implementation in favour of the people. These global shifts should be anchored in strong political and technical leadership, committed to accountability and take decisive steps to stamp out a culture of impunity that has bred inequality, poverty and abuse of human rights, evidenced by poor access to basic services.

If COVID-19 leaves behind anything lasting, it should be a recognition of the importance of basic human rights, such as the rights to water, sanitation and hygiene, and the high cost that we pay for neglecting them.

Pamela Chisanga is Country Director of WaterAid Zambia. Follow her on Twitter at @PamChisanga. Chilufya Chileshe is Regional Advocacy Manager for WaterAid Southern Africa. Follow her on Twitter at @ChilufyaC.

This article was originally published in Zambian newspaper Diggers.