Strengthening water security is essential for preventing and combatting future pandemics. Measures to supress the Covid-19 pandemic, including hand-washing, selfisolating and lockdowns assume that societies, communities and households have sustainable access to acceptable amounts of adequate quality water. However, across developing countries, water insecurity is increasing, with the poorest and most vulnerable particularly at risk.
Water demand, stress and scarcity are increasing due to population growth, urbanisation, land use change, climate change and other drivers. Global water demand is increasing at approximately 1% per annum, whilst between 4.8 and 5.7 billion people are projected to live in areas that are potentially water scarce for one month per year by 2050 (UN-Water, 2019a). Climate change is altering the global water cycle and water availability is likely to become more variable and unpredictable. Ensuring sustainable access to adequate quality water for human
health is challenging in this context.
Zoonotic disease outbreaks may increase due a number of drivers including deforestation and climate change, increasing the potential for future pandemics. Poor people are likely to be disproportionately affected by pandemics due to a lack of access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), poorer underlying health and vulnerability to secondary health impacts, amongst other factors. Immediate water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) responses to the Covid19 pandemic will help to save lives, but in the medium term measures to strengthen water security will be needed. In addition to ensuring sustainable access to adequate quality water,
medium term measures could help countries avoid some of the economic and human costs associated with pandemics.
The 2020 Covid-19 pandemic could increase developing countries and development partners’ focus on water and WASH and trigger transformational change in some countries. The 2014-16 Ebola outbreak in West Africa increased the demand for safe water for prevention and treatment, and also increased development partners’ attention to WASH at the household and healthcare levels both during and after the outbreak. As the Covid-19 pandemic is still unfolding, it is not clear what the impact on developing countries or their water security will be. Consequently, there is a need to monitor how the pandemic unfolds and assimilate lessons learned.
Interventions to strengthen water security should focus on four key areas:
- Adequate water availability: preventing or suppressing potential pandemics is likely to increase water demand for domestic and health uses. Supply and storage solutions are needed to ensure there is adequate water available and to manage trade-offs upstream (competing demands from other sectors) and downstream (wastewater production).
- Acceptable water quality: water quality is deteriorating across developing countries due to discharges from agriculture, industry, human waste, and wastewater. Both surface and groundwater are affected. Climate change will also negatively affect water quality.
- Water resources management: ensuring sustainable access to adequate amounts of acceptable quality water and resilience will require strengthening water resources management so that water is available where and when it is needed to suppress and prevent future pandemics.
- Affordable access to WASH: 2.2 million people globally lack access to safely managed drinking water (defined as drinking water from a source located on the premises, free from contamination and available when needed), and 4.2 billion people do not have access to safely managed sanitation services. This hampers efforts to suppress or prevent pandemics.
Medium term responses will involve moving beyond sectoral thinking to understanding and managing the links between upstream and downstream water resources and users, and the links between water resources and WASH. It will also be important to consider transboundary issues as many rivers, lakes and aquifers cross national borders. River basin planning processes and the co-management of surface and groundwater could lead to more resilient systems and increase a region’s overall storage (UN-Water, 2019a; Rodriguez et al., 2020). Strengthening water security will have a number of positive benefits, beyond public and human health, including increasing resilience to climate change, supporting livelihoods, food security and economic productivity.
Gender and social inclusion
Women and girls, poor households, marginalised groups and persons with disabilities often already experience inequalities in terms of access to WASH and water for livelihoods (UNESCO, UN-Water, 2020; World Bank, 2016). These inequalities may make it harder for these groups to take preventative measures during a pandemic and lead to greater exposure to infection. Medium term response measures need to ensure that barriers faced by these groups are considered and tackled in interventions.
This rapid literature draws on grey literature from leading water resources and WASH organisations including UN-Water, the World Health Organisation (WHO), and UNICEF, as well as working papers and commentary by experts and academics in the field. The report does not consider humanitarian settings and there is a slight emphasis on urban users (although rural users are considered) due to the time constraints of this review and concerns that pandemics may spread easier and quicker in urban areas. Hand washing is a key preventative measure to suppress transmission of Covid 19 and other infectious diseases. However, effectively changing handwashing behaviour is difficult and is more complex than the provision of hand-washing facilities and soap (Coates & de Albuquerque, 2020). Long-term investments are needed, and due to the large body of evidence, these are not considered within the scope of this report.