The pandemic is laying bare a global water crisis

Source(s): Foreign Policy

By Alan Nicol


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.


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.

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.


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.


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