Water and sanitation service providers and the challenges of COVID-19

9 min read
A water tank being filled during the first installation of a contactless (foot operated) hand washing station at Lagankhel bus station, Lalitpur, Nepal, April 2020.
Image: WaterAid/ Mani Karmacharya

As the global COVID-19 pandemic continues to escalate, Puneet Srivastava, Mbaye Mbéguéré and Rob Fuller examine the challenges water and sanitation utilities and staff across the world are facing in ensuring continuous services, and how we are supporting them.

According to the World Bank, consistently applied good water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and waste management practices stop human-to-human transmission of coronavirus in homes, communities, healthcare facilities, schools and other public spaces. Provision of continuous WASH services is the best way to defend against COVID-19 and prevent future pandemics. Despite this recognition – reinforced by many world leaders joining the Sanitation and Water for All #GlobalCall4Water – little attention has been paid during the pandemic to WASH utilities and their staff. The overwhelming focus in COVID-19 responses across the world has been on healthcare systems, developing vaccines and treatments, and the safety of healthcare workers.

Yet, to maintain the high standards of hygiene advocated by healthcare professionals and governments to prevent the spread of coronavirus, continuous availability of clean water and access to safe sanitation are crucial. These services are as life saving as is robust healthcare. The global focus on handwashing as a first line of defence has drawn attention to this and to the vital roles of key workers such as those in utilities, including our partners in the UK water industry, who have been working hard to meet a 10% increase in household demand.1 As countries across the world have been forced into lockdowns and curfews, utilities have been stepping up to the challenge of ensuring everyone has access to a reliable supply of clean water in order to stay safe and healthy, including addressing the additional challenges the pandemic itself has presented to service continuity.

Ensuring water supply has demanded drastic measures

Many water service providers and urban water utilities, following governments’ guidance, have taken drastic measures to supply continuous safe water – including suspending disconnections that would usually be triggered by unpaid bills, and supplying community water points free of charge through tankers and other means – to support the poorest people to practise handwashing, to protect themselves and others. However, in cities and towns where we work with poor communities, water utilities and municipalities often largely lack both capacity and infrastructure to ensure a continuous, equitable safe water supply under the emergency conditions the pandemic has created.

These companies already faced enormous challenges, such as aging infrastructure, non-revenue water, water quality, lack of adequate maintenance and high-energy operation costs. These existing conditions make it particularly difficult for providers of WASH services, including public and informal providers, to maintain or expand their services during a time of increased demand, reduced financial capacities and restricted movement. On top of this is the challenge of ensuring the safety of the people who must continue working to provide services.

A female volunteer wearing partially homemade personal protective equipment disinfecting a community toilet in Bangladesh during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A volunteer wearing partially homemade personal protective equipment while disinfecting a community toilet in Bangladesh during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Embedding sanitation in COVID-19 responses

There are as yet no studies on the survival in drinking water or wastewater of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. However, since viral fragments have been found in excrement, wastewater must be treated in well-designed and well-managed centralised treatment facilities. The need to protect staff of sanitation companies and informal faecal sludge emptiers is essential, prioritising systematic supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) and raising sanitation workers’ awareness of the need to comply with barrier measures. However, these actions unfortunately do not seem to be the priority of actors in the response to COVID-19. Hygiene and, to a lesser extent, drinking water have been the focus so far.

Healthcare facilities are currently producing significant amounts of additional solid waste – masks, gloves, etc – because of the pandemic. This type of waste is normally sent to landfills with domestic waste, but during the pandemic must be managed like other hazardous biomedical waste, with special measures such as incineration put in place and service providers appropriately trained.

Furthermore, since lack of sanitation causes many other water-related diseases – such as cholera, malaria and typhoid – that particularly affect people in low-income countries, governments must be made aware of the need to improve sanitation facilities and sanitation service providers supported to do so, in order that the glaring deficit does not create further epidemics to add to COVID-19.

Challenges WASH utilities face during COVID-19

Common challenges WASH utilities have faced during the pandemic and resulting lockdowns or curfews are:

  1. A 10–15% increase in demand for water at household level due to people working from home and increased handwashing and hygiene measures.1
  2. Potential revenue shortfall (40% or more in many cases),1 especially for utilities that have a significant industrial customer base that has been prevented from working during lockdown. This may be exacerbated by efforts to maintain supply, such as stopping disconnections, postponing revenue collection until the end of the crisis period and supplying services without charge. Unless this shortfall is addressed, many utilities will be unable to maintain current service levels, let alone scale up measures to protect vulnerable and unserved populations. Several national regulators have expressed worries regarding the financial and organisational capacities of utilities in the short and long term and are working on interventions to keep them afloat.
  3. Water quality may be reduced by local unavailability of chemicals required for treatment of water supply and by disruption of supply chains during lockdowns and curfews.
  4. Efficiency of wastewater treatment plants can be hampered by the increased volumes of cleansers and sanitisers in use ending up in treatment systems. Biological treatment processes can also be affected.
  5. Serviceability may be hampered by local unavailability of and disrupted supply chains for consumables and spare parts needed for treatment plants, pumping stations, distribution networks and storage tanks.
  6. Increased staff shortages because of illness and staff concerns around catching the virus, especially if they or a family member are particularly vulnerable, with inadequate safety considerations further increasing the risk of infection.
  7. Lack of capacity in servicing informal settlements, including slums and reaching the poorest and most marginalised people.
  8. Although the importance of water and hygiene in the fight against the coronavirus is recognised, there is a lack of knowledge on the contribution of sanitation solutions to the control of COVID-19.
  9. High exposure and contamination risks of sanitation utility staff working underground in sewerage systems.

Duty bearers have not paid much attention to understanding challenges and solutions to enable water and sanitation utilities to respond effectively to prevent the spread of coronavirus. However, discussions and experience sharing among water utilities in recent global webinars convened by multiple organisations has highlighted lessons and possible actions that utilities, regulators and policy makers could take to achieve long-term improvements to services and preparedness.

Exchanges have also underscored that WASH utilities must work together to quickly build their capacities to respond to challenges of pandemics like COVID-19, while adopting a human rights-based approach to ensure the poorest people in urban communities have access to clean water, decent sanitation and hygiene facilities.

50 water tanks with 5,000 litre capacity that WaterAid Ethiopia provided to be distributed to health centres and temporary COVID-19 treatment sites in Addis Ababa as part of our COVID-19 response.
50 water tanks with 5,000 litre capacity that WaterAid Ethiopia provided to be distributed to health centres and temporary COVID-19 treatment sites in Addis Ababa as part of our COVID-19 response.
Image: WaterAid/ Zerihun Kassa

How we are supporting and bringing together our partners

Our role in the response to COVID-19 includes encouraging collaboration between all actors, from government, the private sector, civil society, donors and populations. Bold actions must be developed not only to respond to the current health crisis but also to make water and sanitation providers more resilient to future crises.

Early in the global crisis, we detailed four things that help water services to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the course of the pandemic, we have expanded our response, including specific support to service providers:

  • Supporting utilities and municipalities with their emergency response to install handwashing stations and water points or tankers in slums and informal settlements where we have been working.
  • Supporting local governments, utilities and communities with digital campaigns on safe handwashing, using social media, community radio and other contactless forms of communications during lockdown.
  • Backing the global #UtilitiesFightCOVID campaign by the UN-Habitat-led Global Water Operators Alliance (GWOPA). GWOPA and UN-Habitat launched this #UtilitiesFightCOVID initiative to raise awareness of the importance of utilities at this time, encouraging professionals from water and sanitation to share their experiences and ideas for tackling COVID-19. Read how water utilities around the globe are responding to COVID-19.
  • Advocating that utility regulators and local governments adopt a human rights-based approach to safe water supply, sanitation and hygiene for people living in slums and informal settlements.
  • Advocating the importance of WASH, especially the sanitation sector, in the prevention of pandemics like COVID-19.
  • Supporting utilities through water operators partnerships to prepare pandemic plans of operation during COVID-19. In normal times we also support them to prepare performance improvement plans.
  • Strengthening the capacity of WASH service providers to develop coping strategies for servicing the poorest people in crisis periods and encouraging them to enhance their partnerships with relevant emerging community-based organisations or groups who can facilitate this.
  • Ensuring WASH services provided in response to the crisis are gender sensitive and consider accessibility options for those unable to use communal facilities.
  • Working with duty bearers on transparent subsidies and grants to utilities for supplying basic levels of water and sanitation services that are affordable for everyone, everywhere within their serviced areas.
  • Advocating improvement of sanitation workers’ conditions by equipping them with PPE and training them on its use.

Spotlight on a UK–Nepal partnership

In Nepal, The Beacon Project – a collaboration between WaterAid, UK company Anglian Water and its Alliance Partners – has quickly adapted its programme, installing contactless handwashing points across Lahan, with plans to support neighbouring districts, and providing disinfectant and PPE to health workers, and soap and masks to Dalit communities.

“Less tangibly, but no less importantly, WaterAid has acted as a conduit for our advice around maintaining water supply and focusing on only business critical activities. Influencing NWSC (the local water company) and supporting them in adopting these practices,” said Alex Bailey, Smart Water Systems Project Manager at Anglian Water.

“We have been able to, remotely, support WaterAid and NWSC in changing the way they collect customers’ bills, the way taps and hand pumps are operated and to help share the importance of good hygiene practices at this time.”

People in a Dalit community in Lahan, Nepal, using a public handwashing facility installed by WaterAid Nepal.
People in a Dalit community in Lahan, Siraha District, using handwashing stations provided by WaterAid Nepal during the COVID-19 pandemic, along with soap and surgical masks.

We are working with WASH utility partners, in the UK and globally, to share the skills and know-how that will bring lasting change to communities around the world. In the UK, we are working together with our partners from across the water industry and as part of the national Love Water campaign to change millions of lives.

Building long-term resilience

It is important that utilities, their regulators and policymakers in the WASH sector consider the fundamental shifts in WASH services delivery that the pandemic has demanded as the new normal to be maintained after COVID-19. These actions are an urgent need now and crucial to building resilience to future pandemics and crises.

We will continue to support WASH utilities in their response and strengthening work, standing in solidarity with them and their supporting governments and institutions in fighting the challenges of COVID-19 and building long-term resilience to reach everyone, everywhere by 2030.

1. These estimates are based on global experience-sharing webinars convened by multiple organisations during the COVID-19 pandemic, in which utilities across the world reported similar figures.

Puneet Srivastava is Urban WASH Advisor for Utilities, Mbaye Mbéguéré is Senior WASH Manager Urban and Rob Fuller is Senior Private Sector Advisor.