The Covid-19 epidemic has, as never before, highlighted the fragility of the systems that underpin our globalized world, revealing how quickly they can unravel with devastating and far-reaching effects. As many around the world strive to understand the implications of the pandemic, it is clear that water is critical not only to these systems, but also to our ability to respond to Covid-19, and to build resilience in a post-pandemic world.
If humanity is truly to "build back better" to prevent and anticipate future shocks, governments, businesses and civil society must value and invest in water security worldwide.
Inadequate water supply and sanitation deprives communities of the most basic hygiene measure that helps prevent the spread of disease: hand washing. As a result, Covid-19 shines a merciless spotlight on the global health inequalities, challenges and risks that arise from our failure to uphold the human right to water and sanitation worldwide.
In its 2019 report entitled Safer Water, Better Health« The World Health Organization (WHO) states that improved water, sanitation and hygiene could reduce global disease and death by at least 4.6 % and 3.3 % respectively. Yet figures speak for themselves: 4.2 billion people lack access to adequate sanitation and 3 billion lack access to handwashing facilities.
Public health specialists say that waterborne infections cause diarrhoeal diseases and poor hygiene blocks the absorption of nutrients, so even those with access to nutritious food may face malnutrition due to unequal access to water. In the current circumstances, where hand washing is limited and waterborne diseases are already common, lethality by Covid-19 could be amplified.
We must also be aware of the implications in terms of gender. In many parts of the world, women and girls spend hours each day fetching water or waiting in crowded queues for water vendors, which can expose them to the virus. If they struggle to fetch water because they are sick or have to care for the sick, their health and food security could be further compromised. To compound the problem, restrictions on movement further reduce the ability to access water.
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In the short term, governments and international agencies must give priority to safe and reliable water supply and sanitation. This includes emergency provision for underserved communities and protection of those responsible for fetching water from exposure to the virus. We also need a better understanding of where and how municipal or rural water infrastructure is coping with peaks in demand due to the virus, so that it can be properly managed to avoid shortages, which can affect the most vulnerable.
In the effort to combat the pandemic, one of the most important priorities will be to ensure the supply of irrigation water to farms that may have missed a planting season, without compromising basic domestic water needs, while mitigating the risks of drought, floods and other extreme weather events. To achieve this, water management will need to enhance the stability of food systems while taking into account the prospect of superimposed shocks, both natural and anthropogenic, that will put additional pressure on food production.
Water-related risks to food systems and economies in general are concealed in places where, in order to counter food supply deficits, dry-season crops are growing and demand for water for irrigation is increasing, as is the demand for water to reopen economies and cities.
Floods and drought will not be put on hold during the pandemic. When people are displaced by such natural disasters, authorities often establish overcrowded camps or shelters, which is clearly not a viable option at present. Fortunately, we can monitor and anticipate water-related risks, and authorities can use the resulting data to help recovery and put in place mechanisms to support poor and vulnerable people in times of crisis.
The prospect of larger concomitant shocks is another concern. In January, the World Economic Forum released its annual global risk reportwhich classifies risks related to water, infectious diseases and food safety issues. In 2020, there will probably be places where we will see all three risks at once.
To ensure that water-related risks do not exacerbate the challenge of the pandemic's exit from crop failuresa unchecked competition for water or droughts or floods countries will need to strengthen water governance. This will help ensure a reliable supply of water for priority uses such as agriculture, public health and industry. They will also need to improve water storage and irrigation capacity to compensate for disruptions in rainfed agricultural cycles, and strengthen drought and flood risk management strategies to protect farmers, communities and economies from multiple and simultaneous shocks to the food system.
In the post-pandemic era, we need to use what we learn about the dynamics of interconnected global systems to "build back better". The public and private sectors must invest in water to create greater resilience to climate, health and food shocks, and to improve water risk management.
This means, among other things, that water systems must be demanded more circularThese include the development and implementation of sustainable development policies, which guarantee supply and enable better capture, clean-up and reuse of resources to protect human and ecosystem health. This means re-imagining our waste streams as resource streamsso that instead of discharge 80 % of the world's wastewater into the environment without treatment, we are investing in treatment that will protect our communities and ecosystems from biological hazards and safely recycle water, energy and nutrients at the same time. While there is currently no clear evidence that Covid-19 can be spread through water or wastewater, we know that historical epidemics have been transmitted this way and that untreated wastewater remains a health hazard in too many communities today.
We are already hearing calls for greater food self-sufficiency, as people are experiencing disruptions in the trade and transport of food. In some cases, this can lead to greater resilience, shortening supply chains and protecting nations from changes in the agricultural and food policies of trading partners.
But shorter supply chains could also increase vulnerabilities, for example to droughts, floods and crop diseases. In addition, food self-sufficiency can lead to unsustainable water use, as food import strategies are often motivated by insufficient water supply for local production. If the "virtual water" embedded in food imports is replaced by unsustainable local water use, the availability of water for drinking, agriculture, ecosystems and a range of other urgent uses could be compromised.
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Today, we must look to the future with a new and deeper appreciation of the value of resilience and the complex, interconnected and interdependent systems that govern our lives and the economy. From now on, we will need to think systemically, not one size fits all.
It is essential to remember that water links health, food systems, climate change, nature, energy and finance. The fabric of water security is created by weaving together effective governance, knowledge and skills, connectivity between systems, and investment in and application of infrastructure, technologies and ecosystem services. If we are to thrive in the post-pandemic world, we must work now to strengthen each of these components and ensure that they are used together to build resilience.
Claudia SadoffExecutive Director of the International Water Management Institute (International Water Management Institute) and Mark SmithDeputy Director General, International Water Management Institute.
The original text (in English) of this forum was published by Ensia
Header image: Illustration Kelsey King/Ensia