On March 11, 2020, The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic. To date, the official number of people infected is more than one million in at least 181 countries, resulting in more than 51,000 deaths. The United States has now become the new epicentre, joining Italy and Spain as the three 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, yet provides no assistance for those facing difficulties to pay their water bills. In a nation with more confirmed cases than any other country, by March 30, more than 225 million Americans in at least 27 states were asked to stay at home (more than two thirds of the country's population).
In relation to the financial challenges that the water industry will incur due to the falling revenue from declines in usage from commercial and industrial users, NACWA estimates the impact to water utilities nationwide of lost revenues due to the coronavirus pandemic could be at $12.5 billion.
A recent survey carried out to the members of American Water Works Association (AWWA) finds absenteeism and continuity of operations are the major areas of expected challenges from COVID-19 for water utilities. Other concerns include impacts on field operations and interruptions of treatment chemical supply chains.
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) and the leading national public health institute of the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), have 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.
Major 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.
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer has also issued a moratorium on the practice of shutting off water in homes with unpaid bills.
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.
Water utilities across the UK have announced measures to insure the provision of safe drinking water to the population. English and Welsh water companies have also stepped up efforts to help customers who have lost their jobs or had their incomes cut during the coronavirus crisis.
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."
On March 28, Ireland went into lockdown with similar measures to the UK. Residents are only allowed outside to buy food, medication and to do some brief exercise.
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 March 29 new measures including restricting public gatherings to two people and said citizens should stay at home except for essential activities.
The states of Victoria and ACT closed their schools, as well as clubs, licensed premises in hotels and pubs, entertainment venues and cinemas, casinos and nightclubs.
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
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.
The water and electricity bills of UAE's shopping malls, commercial shops, hotels, hotel apartments, and plants will be reduced by 20 per cent for three months, starting from April 2020
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.