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Water for handwashing in slums is critical to prevent COVID-19 spreading

Source(s):  United Nations Human Settlements Programme - Headquarters (UN-HABITAT)

“We don’t have enough water to drink and cook our food, so where will we get water to wash our hands frequently?” This was the reaction of Anna Nyokabi, a resident of Kibera, one of Nairobi’s largest slums, when the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Kenya was announced earlier this month. Anna is a single mother of seven children eking out a living as a nanny in a neighbouring well-to-do suburb.

Regular handwashing with soap and running water is recommended by the World Health Organization as one of the best ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19. However it is difficult for Anna and her neighbours to put this into practice due to lack of water in slums. Water points, when available, are only in certain locations and are even harder to access when there are restrictions on movement  to prevent or contain an outbreak of COVID-19.

There is a high risk that the impacts of COVID-19 on the urban poor living in slums such as Kibera will be considerably higher compared to other areas as maintaining social distancing and enforcement of self-isolation is extremely difficult in overcrowded areas.

Residents often live hand to mouth and staying at home is often not an option.

 “Most of us are casual labourers or run small businesses. We must leave our houses to  feed our families.,” adds Anna.

To prevent the spread of COVID-19 in slums and informal settlements, the UN family under the leadership of UN-Water, national and local governments, civil society organizations, women and youth groups and community leaders is looking at the following measures: 

  1. Supporting water and sanitation service providers through the Global Water Operators Partnership Alliance (GWOPA), a UN-Habitat-led global network of water and sanitation service providers providing peer support to one another on a not-for-profit basis. Water and sanitation service providers (small scale providers, utilities and local authorities) are instrumental in stalling the spread of COVID-19 in informal settlements.  The GWOPA global network can provide technical advice, online training and capacity building support, including sharing of information materials, tools and active learning among utilities on responses to COVID-19. Utilities can be encouraged to maintain water and sanitation service continuity and in ensuring affordability is not a barrier to access for the urban poor.

  2. Putting in place emergency safe drinking water and handwashing facilities in key  locations in informal settlements and high-density public places. This involves ensuring emergency preparedness by providing water tanks, standpipes, handwashing facilities and sanitizers along with hygiene messages particularly in crowded areas such as markets, train and bus stations.

  3. Actively engaging community leaders and groups through existing slum networks, youth centres and networks to train community volunteers, set up and manage handwashing facilities and carry out sensitization and awareness campaigns, including disseminating COVID-related messages on handwashing.

  4. Giving priority to the elderly and people living with chronic medical conditions who are the most vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19 in the provision of water and sanitation.



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  • Publication date 22 Mar 2020

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