Access to water and COVID-19: seven measures countries in Asia can take now

This article first appeared in Stockholm Environment Institute.

Handwashing is the most effective measure for preventing the spread of COVID-19, provided the poor and vulnerable have access to clean water.

Here are seven measures that countries in Asia can take now.

As the coronavirus pandemic spreads across the globe, the importance of access to clean water and sanitation is reinforced.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has recognized the importance of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in its interim emergency guidance “Water, sanitation, hygiene and waste management for COVID-19”.

However, the grim reality is that more than 40% of the world’s population lack adequate access to basic handwashing facilities (see map below). Most of these reside in Asia and Africa.

While the percentage of the population with handwashing facilities in Southeast Asia is higher than in many places – between 66 to 86% – countries in South Asia lag way behind, with numbers ranging from only 35 to 60%. Gross inequalities in water access persist between and within these countries, with rural areas and urban slums trailing far behind.

Proportion of population using a hand-washing facility with soap and water (%). Data source: SDG indicator 6.2.1b.

Government inaction will be too great

The Mekong Region is already experiencing one of its worst droughts in decades. Last year’s below average rainfall meant that most of the major reservoirs, for example in Thailand, are already at below half of storage capacity. For many vulnerable and poor communities in South and Southeast Asia, summer will further exacerbate the water shortages.

In the short term, there is an urgent need for governments across the region to take stock of available water from different sources to cater for the combined pandemic and drought situation, if it persists during the summer months.

Ongoing country lockdowns or limited restrictions put the onus squarely on governments to be the prime driver of proactive water resources planning to ensure that adequate water is available to vulnerable sections of society for domestic and increased hygiene needs. It is time to forgo the usual reactive approach – the costs of government inaction will be too great for those who can’t cope.

The marginalized and poor lack access to water because of a lack of infrastructure and uneven and intermittent availability, and the financial, technical, legal, institutional, and political reasons for this are complex. But in the short term, countries have the scope to expand how they assess water insecurity to reflect issues of rights, access, health and hygiene that vulnerable communities face in both urban and rural settings. In the long term, there is a need to move beyond the purview of defining water insecurity as a mere “demand and supply” problem.

Slum areas highlight the problem

This is especially true for urban slum settlements. Large percentages of urban populations in South and Southeast Asia live in crowded slum settlements, ranging from 22% in Indonesia to 63% in Afghanistan. Slum areas get only intermittent water supplies from multiple sources, meaning that people living in them have limited access to clean and safe drinking water. After only a few days into the lockdown, for instance, cases from New Delhi, Jakarta, and other cities across Asia have illustrated how the lack of water for hygiene poses a huge obstacle to countering the pandemic.

Percentage of urban population living in slums. Most of these people have inadequate access to water for handwashing. Source: World Bank.

Recommendations for managing water during the pandemic

It is imperative that governments across Asia ensure equitable access to safe drinking water and hygiene facilities to minimize COVID-19 infections among poor and vulnerable communities. Below are some recommendations for managing water resources in the pandemic:

  1. Immediately budget available water resources from different sources against priority needs for the summer months.
  2. Initiate emergency measures, including tapping water from alternative sources such as groundwater, supply through tankers, and incentives for farmers to refrain from overusing water for agriculture.
  3. Identify hotspots of water insecurity in urban and rural areas to plan and implement contingency measures.
  4. In case of expected acute water shortages, plan alternative ways to support hand hygiene, such as providing free hand sanitizer in unregulated colonies and slum areas.
  5. Adopt a policy decision to defer water utility bills until the pandemic crisis ends.
  6. Under lockdown, ensure vulnerable groups have adequate access to water, such as women and girls facing heightened pressure to fetch water for increased hygiene needs, children, older people, and people with disabilities.
  7. Communicate clearly so that people use community handwashing facilities in a way that minimizes crowding and contact.

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