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Pandemic must be impetus, not obstacle, for clean water access

To make matters worse, there are suspicions that the inadequacy of wastewater treatment methods in California, the rest of the USA, and indeed around the world may help to propagate the disease even more widely.

Stefan ScrasciaStefan Scrascia | Updated: 08-08-2020 23:30 IST | Created: 08-08-2020 23:30 IST
Pandemic must be impetus, not obstacle, for clean water access
Image Credit: Flickr

California's $130-million-a-year plan to finally bring safe and affordable drinking water to its most vulnerable residents looks to have been temporarily derailed by the ongoing coronavirus crisis. That spells devastating news for the one million Californians who have no access to a source of clean water at a time when the hygienic measures required to guard against infection mean they need it most.

To make matters worse, there are suspicions that the inadequacy of wastewater treatment methods in California, the rest of the USA, and indeed around the world may help to propagate the disease even more widely. While it's understandable that the economic repercussions engendered by the onset of COVID-19 make politicians reluctant to spend funds as freely as they may have planned, improving water and sanitation infrastructure should be one of the main priorities – not one of the casualties of a depleted budget.

A familiar fight for Golden State residents

The struggle to access safe water is nothing new for those living in America's most populous state. For decades, a significant proportion of Californians have either had no access to running water at all or else are being charged through the nose for a service not fit for purpose. A March review found 310 public water systems in the state did not comply with official standards, yet residents must still pay as much as a hundred dollars or more per month for the pleasure. Unsurprisingly, at least 350,000 Californians struggle with shut-offs each year due to having insufficient funds to pay their bills. Bottled water has offered these communities a lifeline for years, but has become harder to buy during the pandemic as some stores put limits on how many bottles can be purchased.

The authorities are well aware of the problem. Last year, Governor Gavin Newsom signed off on the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund (SB 200), which was intended to devote $130 million per annum over a ten-year period to address issues with the state's water infrastructure. However, the funds were to be drawn from California's cap-and-trade policy for carbon emissions, which normally raises upwards of $650 million per quarter. Thanks to the coronavirus crisis, the second quarter of 2020 saw the auctions yield just $24.5 million, down a whopping 97% from the previous year. That deficit has thrown the whole SB 200 initiative into jeopardy, meaning underprivileged Californians will have to wait even longer to access clean water.

Unfortunate timing

The hiatus on SB 200 is particularly inopportune because clean water has perhaps never been more urgently needed than during the current pandemic. The World Health Organization (WHO) has placed great emphasis on personal hygiene as a barrier to the disease, while one study found washing hands six to ten times per day (for at least 20 seconds each time) greatly reduces the risk of infection. Obviously, access to clean water is essential to carry out this most basic of tasks, but nearly 45 million Americans lacked a safe water supply in any given year between 1982 and 2015.

While the installation of running water in domestic households can help to improve hygiene, sanitation services are also vital in protecting against the spread of the disease. There has been some encouraging news in the discovery that raw sewage analysis could prove pivotal in detecting outbreaks ahead of time (up to seven days before clinical tests return results), but that positivity has been somewhat offset by the revelation the virus can persist for up to 33 days in the fecal matter of a one-time sufferer, even after they have returned negative results. It's not yet known whether coronavirus can be transmitted via the fecal-oral route, but given 80% of the world's wastewater is released back into the environment without being treated, such a vector could potentially have catastrophic consequences.

Africa providing inspiration

Of course, that hazard would most keenly affect those in impoverished and developing nations with substandard sanitation facilities. The majority of the 4.2 billion people without basic sanitation services reside in Africa, a continent which has yet to experience the most severe consequences of COVID-19 but which has been demonstrating admirable foresight nonetheless. In Rwanda, for example, just 5.5% of the populace enjoy access to adequate handwashing facilities, so the authorities have sought to circumvent the problem by installing portable sanitation stations in public areas.

Similarly, immediate solutions are being pursued in Nigeria, where 420,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) are being helped by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) with emergency water services. On a longer-term scale, the IOM is targeting a fund of $19.3 million to help the country recover from the virus. Continentally, Africa continues to make impressive strides towards tackling water and sanitation poverty. The African Development Bank (ADB) have accelerated their plans since the onset of the pandemic and recently announced that 20 million Africans were able to access clean water for the first time, despite the difficulties caused by the crisis.

Swift action is needed

Those measures will be instrumental in providing countless people with the water they desperately need to sustain themselves and fend off the virus, but they'll also prove shrewd in the long run, too. A Madagascar study into the economic effects of significant investment into water and sanitation produced an estimated increase in both wages and profits of a cumulative $2 million. Indeed, the World Resources Institute (WRI) projects a $6.80 return for every dollar spent on sanitation.

If Africa, one of the globe's poorest regions, can target such incredible gains and accelerate their plans for achieving them even amid the coronavirus furor, so too can the world's wealthiest economy. The USA may proclaim itself as the leader of the free world, but millions of its citizens still cannot access the most basic of human rights – clean drinking water.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are the personal views of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Devdiscourse and Devdiscourse does not claim any responsibility for the same.)


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