The comprehensive water cycle: guarantee, privilege and need
Confidence in the safety and efficiency of the comprehensive water cycle has been reinforced during the Covid-19 pandemic, among those citizens who are guaranteed it. Most of them now have a better understanding of a key service that ensures their well-being. This knowledge should serve to reflect on the situation of the 2.1 billion people who do not have running water in their homes. The crisis unleashed by the pandemic threatens the plans of many countries with regard to the universal implementation of access to water and sanitation. Humanity cannot afford it.
The crisis unleashed by the pandemic threatens the plans of many countries with regard to the universal implementation of access to water and sanitation. © Carlos Garriga /We Are Water Foundation
Will water be infected? Will the supply be cut off? When the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, alarm was raised among many of the more than five billion people who have universal access to water in their homes. In the industrialized world, in the early days of the health emergency, consumption of bottled mineral water skyrocketed. According to the consulting firm Kantar, in Spain, one of the most affected countries, sales increased by 21%, according to data from supermarkets; and this increase reached almost 70% among the population that declared itself most concerned about the pandemic in the consulting firm's survey. Bottled water was the most demanded product after toilet paper, similar to what happened in Italy, France, Germany and the USA.
These fears proved unfounded. In Spain, the Spanish Association of Public Water and Sanitation Operators (AEOPAS in Spanish) went ahead of the Government with a reassuring statement: the water supply was free of all viruses and the professional staff exposed to wastewater in their work were in good health. The Association thus denied some rumors that were spread by social networks claiming that one of the transmission vectors of SARS-CoV-2 was water.
Operators and the State: dual protection
The water sector also demonstrated its ability to withstand a health crisis of this magnitude, maintaining the full operation of its facilities and the safety of its professionals. © Marcin Jozwiak -unsplash
The European governments reacted somewhat later, and it was not until the 12th April that they released the WHO statement endorsed by the consensus of scientific organizations, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC/CDC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which assured the total absence of SARS-CoV-2 in drinking water. The WHO noted that, when water is treated with filtration and disinfection, viruses are inactivated. The water sector also demonstrated its ability to withstand a health crisis of this magnitude, maintaining the full operation of its facilities and the safety of its professionals.
On the other hand, the majority of the 5 billion beneficiaries of universal access to water have seen how their governments have rushed to ensure the supply to those groups at risk of exclusion in the face of the economic crisis unleashed by the pandemic. Water eviction, a scourge prevented by the pressure of civil society in advanced democracies, was made impossible by decree in most industrialized countries.
In fact, the affordability of water is specified by the UN as a human right: "The human right to water is the right of everyone to have sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses." The Covid-19 pandemic has made it possible to make citizens aware of this fundamental right, which has been put at risk by a global emergency.
An unavoidable relativization
Worker at waster water treatment facility. Manila, Philippines. © Danilo Pinzon / World Bank
One of the positive aspects of the pandemic is that it has made many people aware of the importance and complexity of the comprehensive water cycle; the one that allows millions of homes and companies to have water with guarantees of healthiness, and that has professionals who guarantee that it will continue to come out of the tap every day, something that is essential for the continuity of daily life in the homes of those confined by the emergency.
Citizens in industrialized countries are generally used to paying little for water, and any measures to increase the price of the bill are very unpopular. This attitude is usually accompanied by a lack of knowledge of what each drop of water that reaches the home costs and how essential it is to well-being and life. This should be another of the benefits of the pandemic: to create among civil society a rational framework based on citizen knowledge to address the eternal conflict between the public and the private, and to achieve a fair collaboration between both sectors to guarantee the fulfilment of the right to universal access to water and sanitation.
This collaboration should create added value and generate knowledge and technology that can be transferred later to the communities most in need. This is the understanding of the UN, which points out that it has established SDG 17 to achieve adequate public-private partnerships to attain all other objectives.
Creating efficient management systems is also a human right. It is a situation that has to be resolved, since the increasing global water stress does not give much time. In many areas of the planet, water has ceased to be a renewable good and the future outlined by the Covid-19 crisis is not at all promising.
Those who do not have a water tap at home
In Africa alone 40 billion hours are lost each year in the search for water, hours lost to work, school, home and community, that mainly affects women, girls and adolescents.© Arne Hoel/World Bank
While the confined citizens of developed countries have a guaranteed universal supply, for the 2.1 billion who have to get water outside their homes, this crisis adds to the many that plague them due to the lack of resources and the defenselessness in which they usually live. Covid-19 is another of the many diseases faced by those who live far from the comprehensive water cycle, without sanitation, and have seen many loved ones die from diarrhea, tuberculosis, AIDS or Ebola. None of them can afford the luxury of bottled water, as can most people who benefit from the comprehensive water cycle, although paradoxically they do not need it.
According to UNICEF data, 11% of the world's population has to travel from their homes to fetch water beyond the 1,000 meters established by the World Health Organization (WHO) to recognize the Human Right to Water. The WHO also states that the travel time for collection should not exceed 30 minutes. This right, which is the essence of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) number 6, is far from being achieved with the economic crisis that has already erupted due to the pandemic.
The #NoWalking4Water campaign promoted by the Foundation has a direct impact on this scourge that mainly affects women, girls and adolescents in Africa, Central America and South Asia, the areas most affected by the lack of access to water and sanitation. #NoWalking4Water becomes more relevant with the crisis triggered by the pandemic: the World Bank estimates that in Africa alone 40 billion hours are lost each year in the search for water, hours lost to work, school, home and community. This is wasted time that prevents women from participating in productive activities or in the family and social structure, which are essential factors in creating communities that are resilient to the ravages of drought and floods. On the other hand, girls and adolescents stop going to school, thus creating a vicious circle that deepens poverty and social imbalance.
Low income households along riverbanks prone to floods. Jakarta, Indonesia. © Farhana Asnap / World Bank
According to World Bank estimates, between 40 and 60 million people will fall into extreme poverty (living on less than $1.90 a day) by 2020 because of the Covid-19 crisis. One of the negative factors that will cause this increase in poverty is the uncertainty in which the plans of many governments in developing countries to implement the comprehensive water and sanitation cycle as universal services will be immersed. Decades of progress in access to water, in the fight against open defecation and against the pollution of rivers and aquifers are in danger of being reversed. It would be a serious loss that would definitely distance us from the achievement of all the SDGs, something that humanity needs to survive.