Clean water is the elixir of life – as essential for keeping clean as for drinking. Its shortage during the covid-19 pandemic is putting more than half of the global population at risk.
Soap and water are the first line of defense against a range of diseases. Yet 3/4ths of the households in developing countries lack access to this basic tool of hygiene. 1/3rd of healthcare facilities in developing countries also lack access to on-site clean water. “It’s really obvious that in Africa and parts of Asia we should be very fearful of what is to come,” public health specialist Tim Wainwright fretted. “The coronavirus crisis highlights how vulnerable the world is.”
Water is often overlooked as a public service. “One of the reasons underlying the investment gap in water and sanitation is that these services are perceived mainly as a social – and in some cases environmental – issue, rather than an economic one, like energy,” observed environmentalist Richard Connor.
Another reason is that people may be willing to pay for clean water coming into their homes, but not for its treatment afterwards. “Once it is flushed down the toilet, it disappears and becomes someone else’s problem,” said Connor. “Treating wastewater is several times more expensive than treating the source. So, without a willingness to pay on the part of users, it falls on governments to foot the bill, and since they do not recognize the economic value of wastewater treatment – which is perceived as more of an environmental issue – the political will behind such spending is low.”
Water use increased 6-fold in the past century and continues to rise ~1% a year. Climate change has added to water stress.
Water treatment has environmental impact: producing 3-7% of all greenhouse gases, more than flying. Reducing this pollution footprint is technologically feasible, and can be a source of energy. Currently, 80-90% of wastewater around the world is discharged to the environment with no treatment.
“Water needs good governance,” environmentalist Audrey Zzoulay said. “That is usually what is missing.”
Fiona Harvey, “Poor water infrastructure puts world at greater risk from coronavirus,” The Guardian (22 March 2020).
“The United Nations world water development report,” UNESCO (March 2020).