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The water sector’s response to COVID-19

  • The water sector’s response to COVID-19
    Image: Pablo González-Cebrián (iAgua)
  • Water, fundamental for the existence of life, although many times undervalued, has become central to combat the coronavirus disease.

  • Local authorities worldwide, along with water utilities, international organizations and NGOs, are working around the clock to provide the ever-necessary water and wastewater services to the global population, to fight the spread of the virus.

The outbreak of the novel coronavirus Covid-19, which originated from Wuhan in China, is now a global pandemic affecting at least 187 countries. Given very little time to react, world territories established different counterattack plans to slow the transmission of the disease, which has also impacted the water sector.

As lockdowns were increasingly enforced, many governments identified people working in the water and sewerage industry as key workers. This allowed the sector to maintain continuity of operations at water and sewage treatment sites, in roads, or at the various control and customer centre offices. However, this is not the case in all countries. For example, in the Philippines, water engineers are not considered essential workers; therefore, must stay at home. This means burst pipes and other water-related issues are not attended to during the lockdown period.

Pablo González-Cebrián

Frequent handwashing with soap is one of the most effective ways to curb the spread of the coronavirus. In this regard, many countries have banned water shutoffs and restored water service to those households previously disconnected. Certain nations, including Italy, France and Bahrein, have taken a step further to protect their residents, especially those most vulnerable, by suspending the payment of utility bills. However, these decisions have varied widely due to the type of water management carried out in each territory, which is highly dependent on its own legislation or other factors such as weather or average wealth levels.

In the United States, the water industry is facing substantial financial losses. According to a recent report prepared for the AWWA and the AMWA, the combined water and wastewater sector impact of the COVID-19 crisis is calculated to be more than $27 billion. Nevertheless, Bluefield Research, an independent advisory firm, highlights that this pandemic could act as a catalyst to realizing needed step-changes in municipal infrastructure investment and utility operations going forward. Meanwhile, millions of Americans who have lost their jobs during the crisis, risk losing running water if they fall behind with bill payments in coming months, as water utilities in several states have not suspended the policy of shutoffs for non-payment.

Pablo González-Cebrian/ iAgua

In the United Kingdom, the industry put pandemic plans into action to ensure that they could continue to provide clean and safe drinking water to the population. Companies have also stepped up efforts to help customers who have lost their jobs during the coronavirus crisis. For example, Thames Water has doubled its Trust Fund donation to £1 million to support customers in financial difficulties. The British water sector has also been told to prepare for the likelihood of COVID-19 being present for two to three years by Dr Piers Clark, founder of Isle Utilities.

Developing countries face both a straining challenge and an unexpected opportunity during this pandemic. In emergent nations, 75 per cent of households still do not have access to safe water to wash their hands appropriately with. In this respect, international organizations, including the United Nations, world media and non-governmental organizations, are shining a light on the chronic lack of funding for water infrastructure in these parts of the world, now that the economic benefits of water and sanitation have been emphasized. The health emergency which began by hitting China, Europe and the U.S., is spreading through Africa, Latin America and Oceania. In Africa, the highest risk of infection is found in densely populated slums, where there is poor access to health services, high rates of HIV and tuberculosis. Water shortages caused by poor water management, aging infrastructure and drought are also very common.

Across certain parts of Africa, COVID-19 has spurred governments to dispatch water tankers, drill boreholes and repair taps. However, experts and residents of rural villages and forgotten slums, have said these solutions must last long after the pandemic has passed. In these parts of the world, this crisis can be seen as an opportunity to accelerate access to water and sanitation and to strengthen water security.

Below we reveal two interviews (which can be read in full in Smart Water Magazine) on how De Nora, a leading supplier of water and wastewater treatment solutions, and Miya, a world leader in efficient water management, continue to provide essential services during the pandemic.

Amit Horman (Miya): “We don’t foresee a significant long-term impact from COVID-19 on the industry”

Pablo González-Cebrián/ iAgua

As lockdown measures were adopted, most countries directed all residents to stay at home, except those who were needed for the continuity of operations of essential critical infrastructure sectors, including water and wastewater.

For Miya, supplier of water and wastewater services in Europe, Caribbean and Africa, keeping its staff safe was, and continues to be paramount. During an interview with Smart Water Magazine, the CEO of the firm, Amit Horman, shared the steps the company had taken to keep its workers safe and facilities clean. He emphasized that they had supplied all employees with hand sanitizers and urged workers to comply with the guidance of official authorities to prevent infection. “In addition, we have allowed employees to work from home when possible and needed.” To accommodate workers to carry out their chores remotely, Miya implemented the necessary technologies and tools. All business travel was also banned.

For those who could not work from home due to the nature of their jobs, mainly operations and customer service teams, Miya “provided additional protective equipment, such as facial masks, and promoted social distancing, under any circumstances.”

Miya also took all the necessary precautions concerning its customers by launching an awareness campaign on the company’s website, various social media networks and through direct mail marketing. Amit Horman said that this was done “to encourage customers to use the phone, and our digital channels to contact us, instead of heading to the branches.” Access control was also implemented to reduce the branches footfall to a minimum, and securing the required social distancing.

The coronavirus crisis spread across the continents in a very short period of time, not giving corporate leaders, public health directives or governments time to write an “operating manual.” This is why Miya’s CEO highlighted during the interview the need to monitor the situation daily: “As we do with any unusual event, we will watch what’s happening locally and adjust business operation and policies as needed.”

Regarding the impact of COVID-19 on the water industry as a whole, Horman is optimistic. “We don’t foresee a significant long-term impact on the industry. We believe water utilities are amongst the most resilient sectors to an epidemic and for any financial crisis that can evolve as a consequence of that. Water consumption is rigid by nature and we think the sector will actually become even more attractive to investors.”

The CEO’s positivism transpires throughout the interview. He believes that this crisis is a “wake up call for all industries to engage in precautionary measures to deal with similar cases.” And he hopes that once this health emergency has passed, “we will grow as a society and strengthen our mutual responsibility between business, employees, consumers and governments.”

Luca Buonerba (De Nora): “The impact of COVID-19 on the water sector is not linked to water treatment”

De Nora’s headquarters are in the city of Milan, in Italy, one of the worst-hit countries by the coronavirus pandemic. Providing a range of trusted disinfection, oxidation and filtration technologies and aftersales support services for water and wastewater treatment in the energy, marine and municipal markets worldwide, the company has continued to provide its indispensable assistance throughout the crisis.

In an interview with Luca Buonerba, Chief Marketing and Business Developer Officer at De Nora, we learn the measures the group has put in place to keep its employees from harm’s way, as well as how it is facing the growing pandemic and ensuring the company continues to run during such a difficult time.

Numerous efforts have been put in place by the company to protect its workers. As well as fomenting telework, all employees have been provided with protective masks (FFP2 or FFP3), which are replaced under request. For those still working at the offices, sanitizer dispensers are available. “All colleagues have been provided with a personal dispenser with sanitizer solution and additional solution is available at the main lobby for free refills,” stressed Buonerba.

Cleaning has also been intensified, with commonly used tools and areas such as desks, chairs, door handles, restrooms, locker rooms and the canteen thoroughly scrubbed. Disinfection procedures, now, also take place twice a week. The company has also limited the access to certain common areas to ensure proper social distancing.

One of the major concerns water utilities and companies are having in relation to the health pandemic, is its impact on the industry. On the subject, Luca Buonerba reiterates that “the impact on the water sector is not linked to water treatment, but instead to possible phenomena such as absenteeism, service interruptions like delivery of chemicals, technical assistance and maintenance provision.” This is because currently water companies have invested in infrastructure and undertake regular tests to ensure regulatory drinking water standards are met. “There is no evidence from surrogate human coronaviruses that these can be found in surface or groundwater sources or transmitted through contaminated drinking-water.”

“This absenteeism could affect drinking water and wastewater system operators in their ability to operate and maintain their systems adequately, thereby increasing the risks to public health. Absenteeism would also affect workers from other essential and interdependent sectors such as the transportation, power and chemical sectors. It could adversely impact on services such as delivery of chemicals, maintenance and other essential materials and supplies.”

In regard to the impact the pandemic is having on De Nora, Buonerba says it is wide ranging. Although he highlights absenteeism and the continuity of the supply of raw materials as two main concerns: “we are trying to keep production unaffected as we directly supply and service critical industries making chemicals in addition to several water and wastewater facilities (both public and private) where continuity of operations is critical to overcome the crisis.”

Lastly, the company’s Chief Marketing and Business Developer Officer, states that people staying at home is essential to overcome this situation. “Government institutions must employ clear and accurate communications, avoiding panic but giving clear indication that lock down and the use of all possible precaution like distance and additional disinfection of surfaces are the only available effective measure.”

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