The COVID-19 pandemic is shedding new light on the widespread lack of water security, and experts report that action is critically needed to prepare for a future global health crisis. In a new commentary, researchers at the University of Birmingham and Northwestern University are urging policy makers across the world to focus on investment in water infrastructure and clean water technologies.
Recent studies have shown that nearly a quarter of households in low and middle income countries have been unable to follow recommendations for regular handwashing to prevent the community spread of the coronavirus.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the urgent need for global action on water security,” said co-author Professor David Hannah. “This is a basic human right that is not being met in large sections of the world’s population and COVID-19 has provided us with a wake-up call that we cannot afford to ignore.”
The study authors noted that an estimated four billion people experience “severe water scarcity” for the duration of at least one month every year, causing difficulties for handwashing and sanitation.
“Challenges with availability are projected to become more widespread and acute due to climate change and associated increases in hydrological extremes (such as floods and drought), as well as changed water demand due to population growth, displacement, intensification of agriculture and infrastructure degradation,” wrote the researchers.
The commentary outlines specific areas that must be addressed to promote water security. For example, it is necessary to improve existing water infrastructure, such as treatment and distribution systems, to protect water sources from degradation. New technologies to recycle and reuse domestic wastewater and rainwater are also needed to promote water security. These types of measures are often cheaper and more effective than building new infrastructure, according to the researchers.
“The COVID-19 pandemic may serve as an opportunity to change behaviors. For example, over-reliance on commercially bottled water can quickly become self-sustaining and disincentivise investment in sustainable water infrastructure. Rethinking the value of water as a multi-purpose resource and how to use it sustainably is required urgently,” said co-author Professor Iseult Lynch.
“Both the World Health Organization and UNICEF acknowledge the scale of this challenge, Water insecurity has consequences for the well-being – both mental and physical – of billions of people. The costs of not preparing for future crises will be catastrophic,” concluded co-author Professor Stefan Krause.
The study is published in the journal Nature Sustainability .