On March 11, 2020, The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic. On Monday, the WHO warned the crisis is "accelerating" with 85% of new cases reported in Europe and the U.S.. To date, the official number of people infected is nearly 565,000 in at least 170 countries, resulting in more than 25,000 deaths. Europe has now become the new epicentre, with both Italy and Spain overtaking China as the worst-hit countries. But how will this crisis affect the water sector and the provision of drinking water and wastewater services?
In this respect, many water utilities around the world have released their continuity plans to ensure the correct continuance of their services, including the treatment, distribution of drinking water and wastewater sanitation.
On March 25, the Senate approved a historic stimulus package for a total value of $2 trillion. This package is one of the most extensive and sweeping ever considered by Congress. On March 24, a World Health Organization official warned that the United States could become the next epicentre of the coronavirus. The death toll in the U.S. rose at the beginning of the week to more than one hundred in one day. Currently, more than 158 million Americans in 16 states have been asked to stay at home.
The announced $2 trillion coronavirus relief package includes funding for child nutrition, virus research grants, and telework support, but no assistance for those facing difficulties to pay their water bills.
On March 19, California Governor Gavin Newsom issued a state-wide "stay at home" oder and shut down non-essential businesses, and a day later, Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered New Yorkers to stay at home for the foreseeable future.
On March 13, the Trump administration restricted travel from Europe and Asia to the United States, the Trump administration On Wednesday, President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the U.S. border with Canada will temporarily close to “non-essential traffic”.
As the coronavirus cases increase in the United States, shoppers are not only stocking up on goods such as toilet paper, but also on bottled water. To reassure the population, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has released a coronavirus guidance recommending Americans continue to use and drink tap water as usual. In addition, the Agency has also released an expanded list of EPA-registered disinfectant products that have qualified for use against SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
Mayor water associations across the nation: the National Association of Water Companies, the American Water Works Association and the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies have also wanted to encourage residents of the U.S. and Canada to continue to use and drink water from their tap as usual as COVID-19 is not present in drinking water supplies.
Although there are current efforts by 12 House Democrats led by Rep. Dan Kildee of Michigan to convince the federal government to impose a nationwide moratorium on water service disconnections until the COVID-19 has abated, already around 90 cities and 57 million people will be protected from losing service during the ongoing pandemic, with certain public utilities establishing a moratorium on service shutoffs.
In this sense, American Water, which provides 14 million people with drinking water in 46 states, has established a coronavirus preparedness plans, including placing a moratorium and discontinuing service shut offs at this time. It has also announced it will begin the restoration of service to previously shut-off customers.
California Water Service Group and its subsidiaries in California, Hawaii, New Mexico, and Washington have temporarily suspended water service shutoffs for customers unable to make utility bill payments until further notice.
Other water utilities have also made the following statements:
SUEZ North America, as well as SUEZ ‘s headquarters, has comprehensive plans in place to ensure that service continues despite the crisis in the States, as well as in the countries in which the company operates.
Essential Utilities has said that each Aqua utility is focused on providing critical public services to ensure the continued reliability and safety of water and wastewater systems for customers.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered UK lockdown on Monday evening. Citizens will only be allowed to go outside to buy medication or food and to do excercise once a day. All non-essential shops are to remain closed. The death tolls in the United Kingdom have climbed to 422 on Monday.
Water utilities across the UK have announced measures to insure the provision of safe drinking water to the population.
The UK’s largest water and wastewater services company, Thames Water with 15 million customers says it is following government health advice to make sure its customers and staff stay safe, while making sure the company continues to deliver critical services.
Scottish Water’s priority is the provision of water and waste water services to its customers across the country. From 1 April, the water utility will relax pre-payment arrangements for wholesale water charges on Licensed Providers who supply water to businesses in Scotland - worth about £60 million.
Northumbrian Water has put robust plans in place to make sure the utility’s services and operational sites continue to run.
One of the United Kingdom's largest listed water companies, United Utilities, has said: "we’ve put our robust business continuity plans into action so we can make sure we can still supply our water and wastewater services to all customers across the North West."
Ireland has introduced new and stricter measures on March 24 to slow down the spread of the coronavirus. Measures include only leaving home for work if it is essential and theatres, playgrounds, clubs and gyms are to shut.
Irish Water’s aim is to ensure the safety and well-being of staff and to secure the consistent quality and supply of drinking water and to maintain wastewater services on the public network.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on Wednesday sweeping measures to slow down the coronavirus outbreak, including closing its borders to all non-residents and non-Australian citizens.
The states of Victoria and ACT are to close their schools on Tuesday, while clubs, licensed premises in hotels and pubs, entertainment venues and cinemas, casinos and nightclubs will all close from midday on Monday.
The Water Services Association of Australia has released a statement saying: "Drinking water in Australia is high quality and is well treated. There is no evidence that drinking water will be affected by the COVID-19 virus or that it is transmitted by drinking water. There is also no evidence that it is transmitted by wastewater systems. Water is an essential service and water utilities are well prepared to manage their response to COVID-19."
On March 25, New Zealand declared a national emergency as the country reported 50 new coronavirus cases.
United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia
On Saturday, the central banks of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia released plans worth $40 billion to ease the impact of the virus outbreak in their respective countries.
HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, announced water and electricity bills are set to be reduced by 10 percent for all Dubai residents, commercial and industrial clients for the following three months.
The state-run Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA), which at the end of 2017 provided 796,764 customers In Dubai with electricity and 705,376 customers with water, has released a statement saying employees are telecommuting and customers are encouraged to complete their transactions using smart channels.
The government of Bahrain announced a BHD 4.3 billion economic stimulus package to help the country’s residents counter the economic effects of the coronavirus crisis, including paying individuals’ and businesses’ Electricity and Water Authority utility bills for three months from April 2020.