Safe water and COVID-19 — where the twain meet

It's not running water, but safe running water that is needed to fight the pandemic 

By Madhumita Dobe
Published: Friday 27 March 2020

We are in the middle of a pandemic. The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has made its presence felt in every continent except Antarctica, and all we can do is maintain social distancing and wash hands frequently.

Yet, as we flood social media with messages urging each other to wash hands, let us pause and reflect for a moment.

Keeping hands clean is one of the most important things we can do to prevent COVID-19 spread. The catch, however, is clean running water — which is in short or no supply in several parts of the world.

There is a behavorial problem to the scarcity — wastage of water. Ideally, the privileged few who do have access to safe running water should rinse hands, turn off the tap and apply soap.

Turning off the faucet after rinsing hands saves water, and there is little data available to prove whether germs get transferred from hands to the faucet. 

Determining the optimal length of time for hand washing is difficult. It is likely to depend on many factors, including the type and degree of dirt on the hands. 

For example, surgeons are more likely to come in contact with disease-causing germs and risk spreading infections to vulnerable patients.

Hence, they need to wash hands longer than a person who cooks food at home. Nonetheless, evidence suggests that washing hands for about 15-30 seconds removes more germs.

Do we realise how much water we use and waste?

Supply-led water deprivation was found in major cities in India in 2007, according to a study titled Water Consumption Patterns in Domestic Households in Major Cities.

The per capita water availability in these cities was nowhere near the standards laid down by the World Health Organisation (WHO) or the Bureau of Indian Standards (1993), and was also far lower than that in other large cities in the world.

Moreover, the issue was of disparity and inequity. Availability of water in Indian cities varied with socio-economic groups and areas. It was found that households with incomes below Rs 3,000 a month did not get sufficient water.

National Commission on Urbanisation (1988) recommended that per capita water supply of 90-100 litres per day was needed to live in a hygienic manner. Every municipal corporation has defined the requirement of water per capita per day in its own way.

This wide variation in recommendations for domestic use of water is, therefore, hard to understand.

About 100 litres per capita per day (LPCD) is required to maintain a minimum standard of health and hygiene. According to the study above, consumption of water per capita was much lower in all cities. In some cases, it was lower than the recommended level for economically weaker section households.

The average per capita water consumption in domestic households for all seven cities was about 92 LPCD. The highest consumption was in Kolkata (116 LPCD), followed by Hyderabad (96 LPCD), Ahmedabad (95 LPCD), Mumbai (90 LPCD), Madurai (88 LPCD), Delhi (78 LPCD), and Kanpur (77 LPCD).

Even if we take 100 litres per capita per day as the criterion for defining water deficiency, 65 per cent of households remained water-deficient.

The supply is restricted due to resource constraint and because indiscriminate tapping of ground water leads to further complications.

Groundwater is the largest source of usable, fresh water. In many parts of the world, especially where surface water supplies are not available, domestic, agricultural, and industrial water needs can only be met by using groundwater.

The United States Geological Survey compared groundwater levels to money kept in a bank account. If the money was withdrawn faster than it was deposited, there was eventually an account-supply problem.

Pumping water at a faster rate over a long time leads to similar problems.

Some of the negative effects of groundwater depletion are:

  • Lowering of the water table due to excessive pumping  
  • Increased cost of water
  • Reduced surface water supplies. Groundwater and surface water are connected. When groundwater is overused, water in lakes, streams and rivers starts to diminish.
  • Land subsidence occurs when there is a loss of support below ground. This is most often caused by human activities, mainly from the overuse of groundwater.
  • Water quality concerns — Excessive pumping can cause arsenic/fluoride/ saltwater to move inland and upward, resulting in contamination of water supply.

 So, safe running water is running out of supply, as over 40% of water gets wasted due to erroneous use.

In 2017, data from 78 countries revealed that very few people washed hands with soap.  Coverage varied widely across regions and disparities in access, and was found between different groups settings, including urban and rural areas. 

How much water is wasted while washing hands?

The most common mistake we make is not letting the faucet run during lathering. It is the time taken to implement water auditing so we realise how much water we waste through inappropriate use.

Let us also not forget that we need more than just water — we need safe water.

We also need to realise that:

  • There is a water crisis and most of our population still does not have access to safe water
  • Water must be safe for consumption, available at home and free of any contamination
  • Hand washing with soap and water is one of the most effective ways to prevent spread of diseases. More than a third of the world’s population still don’t have adequate resources or facilities to wash hands
  • Climate change is drying up our resources and contaminating it
  • Rural populations are the most disadvantaged. Globally, eight out of 10 people who lack even basic drinking water live in rural areas


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