So here we are, bombarded with daily death and hospitalization tallies, watching for the slightest inflection in our country’s Covid-19 curve, worrying for our loved ones, making huge adjustments to our daily lives. And we’re not even at the end of the beginning of the crisis.
“Wash your hands” has become the universal catch phrase of the public health response to Covid-19 across the world. Yet, only 3 on 5 people worldwide have basic hand washing facilities, which leaves about 3 billion people with no ready access or place to wash their hands regularly.
Water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) are at the center of this crisis and, one would assume, should be at the center of our response to it. But one thing the crisis also shows is to not take anything for granted: in a recent Ministerial Webinar organized by Sanitation and Water for all (SWA), several Ministers of Water in developing countries were reporting how getting WASH up on the agenda of the Covid-19 response proved challenging, sometimes being almost forgotten behind the focus on the health, social and economic aspects of the crisis. The result of decades of under investment and lack of political prioritization of water.
If there was ever a moment to re-prioritize water action, it would be now. WASH is on the first line of building strong public health systems. Or, as Patrick Moriarty, CEO of WASH NGO IRC, puts it: “a WASH response is a health response, a health response starts with a WASH response”.
But it is also clear that it doesn’t end there:
- The water and health nexus is tragically crystal clear for everyone now but Covid-19 aside, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that waterborne diseases such as diarrheal diseases are responsible for 2 million deaths each year, with the majority occurring in children under 5. Climate change-driven flooding are exacerbating risks of waterborne disease outbreaks such as cholera, when water shortages due to drought increase risks of diarrheal.
- In many places, water supply and sanitation systems need to be rehabilitated or dramatically expanded, for example in dense urban areas or slums, to prevent large crowds as people fetch water and ensure safe drinking and hand washing options are reaching the most vulnerable populations.
- Resilient water and sanitation systems also require strong institutions and governance mechanisms. It is worth noting that water utilities are put under particular stress during the crisis: they are rightly being asked in many countries to supply water free of charge or at the least suspend service disconnections to assist the most vulnerable, on top of sustaining their levels of expenditures to ensure the continued provision of water supply and sanitation services and ensuring the safety of their staff. Their financial viability now and into the future is more critical than ever. This is not only a matter of money but also a matter of institutions strengthening and good governance.
- Women play a central role in managing natural resources like water. They also form 70% of health care and social workers: their access to the resource, their protection, and contribution to decision-making and policy are all the more crucial.
- Water pollution is worsening in many parts of the world and effectively reducing the availability of water supplies on top of adding to public health problems. Here, we should remind ourselves that ecosystems such as wetlands or forests are natural caretakers that perform water purification functions free of charge all year round. Yet they enjoy far less attention and investments than traditional ‘built’ water infrastructures.
The World Resources Institute (WRI) projected, well before the Covid-19 crisis, a 56% deficit in water supply relative to demand by 2030. It estimated that investments required to meet the Sustainable Development Goal for universal access to quality water and sanitation services (SDG 6) in low-income countries are at least 3 times the current investment levels (approximately $114 billion per year). How countries allocate and manage their decreasing available water supplies, how water is re- or de-prioritized within development policy and investments, will determine if the water deficit curve will be flattened or steepened.
If there was ever a moment to re-prioritize multi-stakeholder development action, it would be now.
Water is foundational for health as well as most other sustainable development goals, from poverty, hunger, gender equality, energy, economic development, sustainable cities, climate action or peace. But you know what? Many of these other goals are equally foundational to many others. At a time where the most vulnerable countries may be hit the hardest by the pandemic in weeks and months to come, what’s even more important is that the global community works together to solve this shared challenge, in the kind of global partnership that is called for under SDG 17.
As Professor Jeffrey Sachs was pointing out last year at the World Government Summit in Dubai: “The last thing we need in the world now is any “Country first” approach, we need to be in a world of cooperation”. Now is the “rainy day” we are supposed to have been saving for: it is certainly not the time for donor countries to cut back on their Official Development Aid (ODA) commitments of for companies engaged in sustainability to be dropping the ball. It is absolutely the time for corporate sustainability initiatives aiming for system change and for more multi-stakeholder collaboration: for example, UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) joining forces with Unilever in a global awareness campaign that will reach 1 billion people to change behavior and provide 20 million soap and hygiene products to the poorest.
Finally, if there was ever a moment to mobilize even more for nature, science and climate action, it would also be now.
A lot has been said about the wake-up call nature seems to be sending us through this pandemic. Humans have relentlessly been encroaching into wildlife habitats for decades, dangerously multiplying contacts with wild animals harboring viruses like the coronavirus. Should we assume that we will have learnt our lessons and that the after Covid-19 will be a world where nature and biodiversity finally reclaim center stage? Will our governments finally heed the 30-year long warnings of climate scientists? I don’t necessarily think so.
Some early signals suggest the after Covid-19 could in fact mean a leap back toward an even more unsustainable world: China is now engaged in a new coal rush to stimulate its economic recovery. The US’s (ill-named) Environmental Protection Authority is relaxing its anti-pollution standards in a similar effort to lift the US economy from lethargy. Considering air pollution is increasing pre-existing conditions, the move towards increased fossil fuel production from the world’s two largest economies – no doubt to be followed by others – will leave populations even more exposed to the coronavirus but also bring us closer to uncontrolled climate change – the ultimate curve flattening challenge ahead of us. Not so coincidentally, the highest ever level of carbon concentration in the atmosphere in the entire human history was reached last week.
A blue-sky sustainable development future will not come about easily, at least not without a far greater mobilization from all of us, believing in sustainable development. Much like it is our personal behavior that dictates the extent of the pandemic, it is our will, our vote, our trust in facts and science and our actions, from the grassroots to the top, that will dictate the type of post Covid world we get.