Four things that help water services to combat the COVID-19 pandemic

7 min read
Umbelina Alves Ribero, 54 (left),  Olinda da Silva Nunes, 59 (middle) Lautekas, AI Technology Community, Timor-Leste, November 2019
Image: WaterAid/ Vlad Sokhin

Access to a reliable supply of clean water is a fundamental human need that, in a global health emergency, becomes crucial to survival. Vincent Casey outlines the key threats to water services during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how to mitigate against challenges to ensure more people can access vital supplies.

Handwashing with soap and water is a critical defence against the spread of COVID-19. And reliable supplies of clean water are vital not just for handwashing but also for keeping homes and healthcare facilities clean. But, despite this essential need for clean water to cope in a pandemic, 2 billion people do not have safely managed water, meaning they struggle to access a clean, reliable supply close to the home.

The reality is that rural and urban water supply services in the countries where we work are already subject to interruptions. These are caused by intermittent power supplies; under investment in service continuity; poor cost recovery; understaffing; and dependence on ageing, dilapidated infrastructure. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought further challenges, with key service-provider staff struggling to attend work because of illness or transportation issues, and supply chains for crucial treatment chemicals (such as chlorine) disrupted.

There are several threats associated with COVID-19 from a water supply perspective

We are concerned about the links between COVID-19 and water supply because:

  • Inadequate access to water supplies impacts on hygiene and cleanliness, risking health and exacerbating the pandemic.
  • Disruption to existing water supply services and disconnection of poorer, non-paying households increases the risk of other disease outbreaks.
  • There is potential for coronavirus disease transmission at communal water facilities, due to contact with contaminated surfaces such as taps and hand pump handles, and lack of social distancing.
  • Increased burden of water collection is likely to fall on women and children.
Men and women stand in queue to collect water from a hand pump in Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh, India.
Men and women stand in queue to collect water from a hand pump in Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh, India.
Image: WaterAid/ Prashanth Vishwanathan

Our work on water supply has four main objectives

  1. Ensuring poorly served households and healthcare facilities have enough water for basic needs (including handwashing and cleanliness).
  2. Supporting service providers to maintain continuity of service with minimal disruption, and promoting continuity of service for low-income households during the pandemic.
  3. Reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission at communal water facilities.
  4. Continuing to push at local, national and global levels for stronger WASH systems, to ensure the right leadership, governance, coordination, integration, financing, accountability and capacity are in place to deliver sustained, inclusive services to all in the longer term.

Managing risks during the pandemic

We have changed our ways of working to manage the risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. This means that all WaterAid teams across the world are observing government movement restrictions and social distancing, coordinating support through our partners (national governments, local governments, municipalities, utilities, civil society organisations, health workers and water operators) who employ key workers responsible for provision of essential services. While these key workers are normally exempt from movement restrictions, we must ensure that our work with them does not place them in any immediate danger. 

We also need to make sure that their work does not place anyone else at risk of contracting coronavirus. We are thinking about how we can reasonably support our partners to ensure they are also adequately managing risk exposure, especially for women and for people who are marginalised or at greater risk of contracting the disease.

A coordinated and context-specific response to ensure water services

We aim to coordinate with partners to support government and service provider efforts to deliver inclusive water services during this global health emergency. We have received requests from governments to provide support in many of the countries where we work, and are actively coordinating with them.

Each context is different, and our capacity to respond varies from country to country, because of our own funding and resourcing constraints. In most cases we are connecting with other agencies through national water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) clusters to coordinate work, and efforts are informed by World Health Organization (WHO) WASH guidance.

Our water services work forms part of our wider WASH response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which also covers hygiene and sanitation. Currently, a lot of our work is focused on urban and peri-urban areas – because of proximity to central government structures and ease of access as travel becomes increasingly difficult – but we are aiming to scale up our support in rural areas.

Men using one of two handwashing stations we installed at Mardan Medical Complex, Pakistan, outside its quarantine and emergency centres with the help of IRSP Pakistan during the COVID-19 response.
Men using one of two handwashing stations we installed at Mardan Medical Complex, Pakistan, outside its quarantine and emergency centres, with our partners IRSP Pakistan.
Image: WaterAid

Our work through our partners is guided by the four objectives mentioned above and includes:

  • Supporting governments and service providers to identify and prioritise poorly served areas and healthcare facilities through provision of service-level data.
  • Making resources available for rapid rehabilitation of easy-to-fix non-functional water sources.
  • Promoting ways to maintain social distancing at communal water facilities. In areas where there are large queues for facilities, there is a need to space demand for water. Some governments, municipalities and operators may be deploying or planning to deploy tactics used when there are water shortages, spacing demand through provision of water tanks near to communal water sources topped up by tankers. For example, to avoid queues, some operators are telling users to leave their containers at water points and come back to collect them when they have been filled by the operators’ workers. Some operators have drawn space markers on the ground showing where to stand to maintain safe distances. And some of our in-country retail partners have provided signs from their shops promoting social distancing for display at water points. We want to promote these and other ideas aimed at maintaining social distancing at water points.
  • Promoting regular disinfection of surfaces at water points to limit the possibility of coronavirus transmission between people via taps and pump handles. This can be done using diluted household bleach, as set out in WHO guidance.
  • Supporting partners to provide additional temporary water supplies in poorly served areas and healthcare facilities in the form of tanks topped up by water tankers.
  • Advocating that utilities and service providers maintain water supplies for households suffering from loss of income (and do not disconnect them) and provide water to low-income, poorly served areas and healthcare facilities. Some service providers have decided to provide free water to low-income areas during the pandemic – we are supportive of this as a temporary measure.
  • Reaching out to civil society organisation partners to report back on real-life impacts on the ground.
  • Working with service provider and utility partners to develop service continuity and equity plans (where they don’t already exist) to ensure critical operations are covered during and after the pandemic.
  • Where possible, supporting service providers to procure essential supplies such as chemicals (e.g. chlorine), spares and back-up power supplies (generators, fuel) to ensure continuity of service and extension of service to poorly served areas.
  • Advocating that service providers receive continuous power supplies, even during load shedding, to ensure continuity of service.
  • Promoting water safety and household water treatment and safe storage to mitigate against contraction of diseases.
  • Promoting collection of water, cleanliness of water and sanitation facilities and practising of hygiene as the responsibility of all – not just women.
  • Pushing for strong WASH systems to ensure the right leadership, governance, coordination, integration, financing, accountability and capacity are in place to deliver sustained, inclusive services to all in the longer term.

Our response efforts can mitigate existing and new vulnerabilities

In all of this we are mindful of the fact that, even within the marginalised groups we always focus on, the harshest impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic will fall on those who are already facing the biggest challenges and inequalities. In this blog we set out how we can work to mitigate both existing and new vulnerabilities in our response.

As we support community, national and global responses to the coronavirus pandemic, we will continue our ongoing system strengthening work to ensure that people everywhere have lasting access to clean water and sanitation. In this global health emergency, access to a reliable supply of clean water is absolutely key to survival. The need is immediate and urgent, but we must continue to strive towards long-term solutions, protecting the most marginalised now, and against future outbreaks.

Vincent Casey is Senior WASH Manager  – Water at WaterAid UK. He tweets as @VINNYCASEY2

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