While those of us engaged in water innately understand how it permeates other fields, the havoc that COVID-19 continues to wreak upon the global community serves as the explanatory illustration that we needed to galvanize more and better investment in water supply and sanitation, underpinning healthy people, stable economies and resilient ecosystems.
Professionals engaged in water, sanitation, health and hygiene (WASH) are often trained in schools of public health, which would suggest a natural overlap with other health fields. However, WASH challenges persist more dramatically in developing countries than developed, keeping them separate from popular discourse, and addressing foundational WASH needs is seen as distinct from high-profile medical advances. As a result, WASH priorities seldom integrate into the larger health sector.
COVID-19 upended that dichotomy and brought fundamental WASH issues to the forefront of the health conversation. Handwashing is acknowledged as one of the primary defences against the virus, and handwashing requires a reliable water supply. Meanwhile, the observation of social distancing is inherently more difficult if you lack facilities like a toilet at home. Therefore it is no surprise that the slogan “Water is PPE” has resonated deeply with audiences who are normally less attuned to the plight of the 2.2 billion people (six times the population of the United States) that the WHO estimates live without a household water connection, the 2 billion people (one in three) that the WHO estimates lack access to a toilet, or the three billion people (40% of the world's population) that UNICEF estimates as not having a handwashing facility with soap and water at home. Water, sanitation and handwashing have risen in visibility, and more actors are reaching out to experts such as UNICEF and the Sanitation and Water for All Partnership to understand how they can contribute to addressing this global crisis.
Policymakers seem more aware that access is not only a public health issue, but also a fundamental component of a healthy economy
Because WASH is so closely associated with health, the impact that water and sanitation have upon incomes and economies was grossly overlooked – until now. The Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR’s) VoxEU.org analysts summarized: “The Covid-19 pandemic is a global shock ‘like no other’, involving simultaneous disruptions to both supply and demand in an interconnected world economy. On the supply side, infections reduce labour supply and productivity, while lockdowns, business closures, and social distancing also cause supply disruptions. On the demand side, layoffs and the loss of income (from morbidity, quarantines, and unemployment) and worsened economic prospects reduce household consumption and firms’ investment.”
Unhealthy workforces miss out on wages when they a) cannot work due to illness, b) have to care for a sick family member or tend to a child’s schooling, or c) because they (often females) have to collect water and/or travel to defecate in private. Those forgone wages stand in addition to medical costs required to treat a water or sanitation-related illness. Now, people and policymakers seem more aware that access is not only a public health issue, but also a fundamental component of a healthy and vital economy that they need to help address.
Climate and water resource management
The impacts of water and sanitation upon health and economy have also, perhaps most interestingly, started to help unite the WASH sector with the Water Resource Management (WRM) sector.
WRM has long focused more of its energy on landscape preservation, ecosystems, water conservation, biodiversity. Perhaps the difference can be broken down by the prominence of people in the two fields: WASH is primarily concerned with ensuring that every person has access to safe water, sanitation, health and hygiene. The field measures its success in terms of people – how many do or don’t have access. By contrast, while there is a large “people” component of WRM, people are one stakeholder amongst several that stand to lose from degraded environmental conditions, not the sole focus. Metrics of success might be more in the preservation of threatened species, natural habitats, levels of contaminants in water, etc. This difference in orientation may help explain why the groups have tended to keep their respectful distance from one another. However, the impacts of climate change – and the need to elevate water in that conversation – were already starting to motivate these two sub-sectors to start talking to each other.
Most of it was just talk, however, until COVID-19.
Since the global pandemic appeared, I have observed WRM organizations proactively reaching out to WASH organizations and looking for opportunities to partner. From my vantage point as a player within the WASH community, the recent visibility of WASH has resonated with WRM priorities on watershed health.
The impacts of water and sanitation upon health and economy have started to unite the WASH and the Water Resource Management sectors
Anecdotal evidence of this shift: my organization has been invited into conversations with a WRM organization seeking to develop collaborative, holistic WRM-WASH interventions. The lead of this initiative frankly acknowledged to me that while he personally had been interested in partnering with WASH actors for some time, institutional buy-in to do so at their organization would have been unlikely if not for COVID. I don’t think this is a one-off occurrence; I believe it is the beginning of a trend.
Just as the pandemic forced actors to recognize the inter-related nature of WASH in health and the economy, there seems to have been a new understanding that you cannot look at watershed health independent of the people who depend upon its resources. It could also be related to the growing momentum around bringing water into the climate change conversation: the impacts of climate change are inevitably experienced most visibly through water: off-season, more intense droughts and floods alongside hurricanes and sea-level rise are rendering many formerly occupied spaces inhabitable. This has and will continue to affect where people live, with implications upon the landscapes where they settle. You cannot talk about climate change without talking about water. The ability of people and ecosystems to adapt and be resilient in the face of a changing climate requires a coordinated focus on addressing water systems.
A way forward
A positive outcome amidst the chaos that COVID-19 has thrust upon our lives has been a forced simultaneous reckoning with water and sanitation, water resources, health and economy: the realization that all must be considered en masse to ensure a resilient future. This recognition is at once propelling a conversation between a more diverse spectrum of players while also catalysing the political will that is necessary to develop the comprehensive solutions we need.
This broader conversation creates the opportunity for innovative technology to help us predict and steward water resources, ensuring continued and often improved access for people around the world. A greater popular understanding of these issues may also embolden government actors to take long-needed but historically unpopular actions in terms of utility and agricultural management (e.g. water pricing and tariffs, agricultural water consumption, etc.). Finally, actors are starting to make a concerted effort to look critically at how our evolving global ecosystem sustains itself financially. For more than a decade, Water.org has been focused on harnessing credit to facilitate household access to WASH, but has gradually been broadening this scope to consider, in partnership with others, the larger systemic changes that need to be implemented to ensure any solutions implemented today can be financially sustained over time. The convergence of more actors willing to dedicate their attention to this critical but often overlooked facet of the challenge leaves me with more hope for faster solutions at scale than I had before.