An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Pandemic Is Laying Bare a Global Water Crisis

Insufficient water for washing is likely to worsen the coronavirus in the poorest nations. There’s a better way forward.

A woman washes her hands in the courtyard of her house in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Nov. 1, 2018.
A woman washes her hands in the courtyard of her house in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Nov. 1, 2018. EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP via Getty Images

Days after he shared images of municipal workers disinfecting the streets of Addis Ababa with high-powered hoses, Mayor Takele Uma Banti found himself struggling to explain a 72-hour water shortage.

Days after he shared images of municipal workers disinfecting the streets of Addis Ababa with high-powered hoses, Mayor Takele Uma Banti found himself struggling to explain a 72-hour water shortage.

For the 4.8 million residents of Ethiopia’s capital city, interruptions to the water supply are nothing new. But in the grip of a pandemic, the latest disruption threw into sharp relief the inequality created by limited and unpredictable access to clean water. Without a treatment or a vaccine, the primary advice to prevent the spread of the coronavirus is regular hand-washing and good hygiene. But this is out of reach for millions of Ethiopians living without sustainable access to clean water, laying bare the critical link between water and public health.

Water crises were ranked above both infectious diseases and food crises in the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Risks Report. This year, the world is likely to see all three.

Inequality in water access worldwide will shape the course of the pandemic; it must also be a priority in post-coronavirus economic reconstruction.In the immediate term, it is essential that clean water reaches as many people as possible to enable them to take the basic precautions needed to reduce the risk of infection from the coronavirus. Improving access to water, sanitation, and hygiene systems could bring down the overall global disease burden by 9 percent and reduce the number of deaths to disease by more than 6 percent. This cannot be achieved when more than 840 million people worldwide currently lack basic supply. In the Arab region alone, for example, more than 74 million people are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 because they lack the facilities to properly wash their hands. Inequality in water access worldwide will shape the course of the pandemic; it must also be a priority in post-coronavirus economic reconstruction.

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In Ethiopia, the International Water Management Institute has mobilized trained members of the public, known as parahydrologists, to collect data on household knowledge of the coronavirus and assess how the current access and use of water affects disease mitigation measures. This information will help scientists and public agencies identify, among other things, more effective ways of implementing mitigation measures such as social distancing. This might include finding alternatives to communal water points, where people from several households might gather at the same time and risk spreading the virus.

Even amid a water shortage, new technologies have given struggling families tools to address shortfalls. For instance, the expansion of relatively low-cost solar-powered irrigation pumps in low-income countries can provide a new ways for farmers to access more reliable water supplies, not only for irrigation but also for their daily use. The pumps cost around $1,000, and some governments have experimented with financing models to subsidize the cost and make them affordable for farmers. Solar pumps and other water-lifting technologies could be scaled up to reduce potential knock-on effects from the pandemic in remote areas by increasing access to safer and more reliable groundwater. Other low-cost technologies include simple hand-pump designs and rainwater harvesting structures, including from rooftops. The challenge, however, remains one of balancing water availability with water quality, including suitability for consumption at a domestic level.

In the longer term, new and emerging technologies including satellites and drones will monitor water resources faster and more accurately, allowing scientists to identify water-related risks on the horizon further ahead of time and to prepare people for future shocks.

For example, one new initiative will use remote-sensing technology to gather continent-wide data on water in Africa over the next three years and store this in a format ready to be analyzed in an open-source database. The aim is to equip governments and regional agencies with the information needed to make early decisions about managing water and reallocating resources where necessary. This could be a crucial tool in understanding better the trade-offs and complexities in water allocation between domestic, agricultural, and industrial use, as well as safeguarding the future of environmental flows in river basins under significant pressure. These measures could help to mitigate the impact of future destructive floods and droughts on food security, as well as help ensure clean water access for poor households as a first line of defense against the spread of disease. Greater public and private investment in such tools will help improve modeling and forecasting systems, not only minimizing the risk of water-related setbacks to the global recovery from coronavirus, but helping countries better cope with droughts, floods, and other disasters going forward.

Compromises around water use are seen across economic sectors, and this has become more acute during the pandemic. Demand for food from a rising global population will only continue to grow after the outbreak has subsided, meaning water resources will have to be more carefully managed to ensure irrigation for crops does not come at the cost of household hygiene.

Current food systems often operate on assumptions of security, gambling with “just enough, just in time” approaches to maximize efficiency and profit. But the panic sparked by measures to control the coronavirus pandemic highlights the vulnerability of these systems to external shocks and stresses.

In cities, water planning and management needs to focus more on reusing water to balance the needs of a rising population with the production of increasing levels of waste and wastewater. In Addis Ababa, for example, the Akaki River supplies irrigation water for farmers downstream, who then supply food products to the city’s population—even though their irrigation source is heavily polluted with industrial and domestic waste.

The capital is far from alone in this: Some 380 billion cubic meters of wastewater are produced globally every year, yet there is untapped potential to reuse and repurpose even this volume. Within this waste can be found an estimated 16.6 million metric tons of nitrogen, a key nutrient for plant growth and one that is often applied on farms in the form of fertilizer. By extracting this nitrogen, wastewater could be used to help improve soil fertility and offset 13 percent of global agricultural demand for fertilizers. Extracting nutrients and energy from wastewater while mitigating health risks therefore becomes a classic win-win for people and the environment. The adoption of a circular economy, in which new uses are found for waste, helps increase the value of what might otherwise be thrown away, and this can help in financing waste reuse and upcycling. But ultimately this is a public-policy choice—and will require heavy subsidies and investment by the state, working in partnership with consumers and producers.

Building a post-coronavirus economy means reimagining how producers and consumers value water and water security, and how we might grow economies more equitably and safely. But changing directions will not be easy. Public finance and political commitment will have to come to the fore, combined with new investment partnerships and stronger governance at all levels. Exploiting and governing new technologies effectively will also be essential to support longer-term transformations required to better manage the world’s water resources. The world must fundamentally reassess the value of safe and secure access to water supplies for all. If it doesn’t, the poorest will be disproportionately affected, but all of us will ultimately suffer from the threat to human security.

As nations begin to peek under the curtain of the global lockdown and start preparations for reopening their economies, governments should begin with an abundance of caution. Rather than returning to our current, broken systems, we must tackle future risks head-on. Without a sea change in our economic growth models to prioritize water for the poor and for healthier, more sustainable food systems and environments, we will continue to face further jeopardy and future risks. At a time when public health demands widespread basic hygiene and sanitation, this is an opportunity to finally make good on the promise of “water for all.”

Alan Nicol is strategic program leader at the International Water Management Institute.