COVID-19: Water a crucial weapon in pandemic fight

Water access, safe sanitation and rapid de-densification of settlements are key interventions in COVID-19 response plan

By Dhesigen Naidoo
Published: Friday 03 April 2020
Coronavirus pandemic. Source: Pixabay

We are in the throes of the unprecedented novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic spurred by a variant of the virus that we collectively contained and managed in the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic of 2002-2004.

The new virus — SARS-CoV-2 — has thrown the world into a storm and no corner of the Earth is untouched. Its impact has been severe on the social, political, economic, security and health fronts. Our anxiety for personal and collective safety has risen to understandably high levels.

Our governments are investing in war-like strategies such as lockdowns and total isolation to flatten the curve so that our fragile and under-resourced health systems are not overburdened.

I write this when South Africa’s infections have surpassed the 1,000 mark and we have recorded our first COVID-related death. Dark times!

Water is central to both containing infections as well as treating regimen of those infected. Regular hand washing is one of the better lines of defense against the further spread of the virus.

Handwashing campaigns top the list of many national interventions. What this has inevitably done, as crises generally do, is put a magnifying glass on the issues of water security and safe sanitation access. And once again, across the world, but mainly in the global South, we have been found wanting.

Using budget prioritisation for emergency measures, water access has become a key objective with tanker services, water harvesting and storage tanks being vital short term measures.

Similarly, access to safe sanitation and rapid de-densification of settlements and slums are key interventions in the COVID-19 response plan. This, along with apt measures to ensure short-term food security and economic safety nets, will mould us into reasonable shape — both as individuals and nations — and beyond this crisis.

One of the many risks associated with this pandemic is slowdown in achieving development targets, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). There is a high probability that SDG6, the goal for water and sanitation, will be further delayed. Depending on the global recovery time, this could be for a long time.

In this flurry of emergency responses, it is important to note that we also have the opportunity to do the opposite. We can, in fact, accelerate our efforts toward the SDGs in the medium-term — to make way to sustainable development and an economy with lower carbon footprints in the long run.

This is the moment when, in many countries, unsafe water and poor sanitation are the major risk factors on one hand, and containment and recovery strategies on the other. They are enjoying much political attention in the public sector and huge focus in the private sector.

This must be the right time to engage in catalytic actions to make universal access to safe water and sanitation a possibility with concomitant, smarter and eco-friendly waste and wastewater treatment. This should be complemented through beneficiation of waste and wastewater to produce fertilisers, high-value chemicals, lipids and proteins. These actions will prove transformative — economically, socially and environmentally.

To make this a reality, there are some critical success factors. First, we have to heighten our efforts to translate the vast repository of scientific and technological knowledge to tangible products and services for immediate use. There will have to be substantive support to product and business development and an overhaul of our archaic regulatory rules and operating procedures.

Second, we need new economic models to effect large scale implementation and sustainable operations and maintenance. Third, we need to bolster our partnerships between science and society, governments and businesses, local and international.

COVID-19 has introduced a ray of hope for new global solidarity. The disease has emphasised that we are unarguably friends in need, let us become friends in deed as well. 

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