COVID-19 pandemic should be a wake-up call for water security

Urgent action on water security is essential to better prepare societies for future global health crises, say researchers at the University of Birmingham in the UK and Northwestern University.

In an opinion piece published in Nature Sustainability today (Aug. 24), researchers are urging policy makers across the world to focus on behavioral change, knowledge promotion and investment in water infrastructure.

The call to action follows studies revealing nearly a quarter of households in low- and middle-income countries have been unable to follow basic guidelines on handwashing, which is recognized as critical for preventing the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

The studies were conducted by the Household Water Insecurity Experiences – Research Coordination Network funded by the National Science Foundation. HWISE – RCN is an international community of interdisciplinary scholars and practitioners working in the field of water insecurity.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the urgent need for global action on water security,” said Professor David Hannah, who holds the UNESCO Chair in Water Sciences at the University of Birmingham’s School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences. “This is a basic human right that is not being met in large sections of the world’s population, and COVID-19 has provided us with a wake-up call that we cannot afford to ignore.”

“This is a great example of how our HWISE scale, which measures household water insecurity experiences, makes visible the often invisible crisis of water insecurity,” said Sera L. Young, associate professor of anthropology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern and faculty fellow with the University’s Institute for Policy Research.

“Inequalities in access to a resource fundamental for existence, and for preventing transmission of COVID, must not continue. My co-authors and I lay out some key actions that can make the world more water secure, and safer for us all,” she said.

Specific areas to address include:

Improving water infrastructure and technologies

Protecting water sources is key to ensuring safe drinking water. Approaches should include adequate water treatment and distribution systems, as well as methods for recycling and reusing domestic wastewater and rainwater. These sorts of measures may be more cost effective than building expensive new infrastructures such as dams or purifying water after it has become polluted.

Promoting changes in behavior

Local leaders and communities should grasp the opportunities to promote and embed good hygiene behaviors in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes rethinking our appreciation of the value of water and how to use it sustainably. This is important since future predictions on climate and population change mean even communities with good access to water may face an uncertain future.

Promoting alternatives

Predicting and planning for relief efforts such as temporary taps or hand sanitizer products will be increasingly important as climate change and population growth progress. Opportunities for handwashing vary widely across regions and even within households, so hotspots (areas with insufficient clean water) and hot moments (periods of time when clean water is inaccessible) need to be adequately forecast and prepared for.

“The COVID-19 pandemic may serve as an opportunity to change behaviours,” said co-author Iseult Lynch, professor of environmental nanosciences, University of Birmingham. “For example, over-reliance on commercially bottled water can quickly become self-sustaining and disincentivise investment in sustainable water infrastructure. Rethinking the value of water as a multi-purpose resource and how to use it sustainably is required urgently.”

“Both the World Health Organization and UNICEF acknowledge the scale of this challenge,” added co-author Stefan Krause, professor of ecohydrology and biogeochemistry, University of Birmingham. “Water insecurity has consequences for the well-being – both mental and physical – of billions of people. The costs of not preparing for future crises will be catastrophic.”

Water and sanitation for all in a pandemic” published in Nature Sustainability. Additional co-authors include Feng Mao, Cardiff University (UK), and Joshua D. Miller, Northwestern University.

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