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Inadequate water infrastructure causes a tidal wave of coronavirus in rural Alaska

Lucky GuleriaLucky Guleria | Updated: 05-11-2020 18:13 IST | Created: 05-11-2020 18:13 IST
Inadequate water infrastructure causes a tidal wave of coronavirus in rural Alaska
Representative Image Image Credit: ANI

Alaska's sparsely populated, indigenous communities found themselves in deep water last month, reporting exponential daily increases in COVID-19 cases. For several months, the northerly state recorded zero infections in numerous remote communities— today, however, Alaska sits in ninth place per capita for positive cases in the United States, at more than 50 per 100,000 residents. Travel restrictions and social distancing have proved inadequate in arresting the virus, which threatens to sink an unprepared health system.

For many rural Alaskans, however, this reason for the rise in coronavirus cases is crystal clear and heartbreakingly simple: a lack of access to clean and safe water in their homes. This predicament is one that affects millions of people globally, and the global pandemic has brought their plight into stark relief.

'World Handwashing Day' fell on October 15, reinforcing the now ubiquitous message from global health experts that regular hand washing is the first step to preventing infection. Americans have improved their hygiene habits since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, with 78 percent of Americans confirming they now wash their hands more than 6 times a day—an upward trend that must continue to stop the virus. But how are marginalized rural populations supposed to fall in step when over thirty Alaskan Native communities have no running water or sewer systems?

In 40 percent of Alaskan homes, residents depend on haulage systems to transport water from rivers into 200-liter storage drums. This arduous process helps explain why many Alaskan communities go to extreme lengths to conserve water, with some residents using just five liters of water a day—a figure comparable with Mali in Sub-Saharan Africa, rather than the average American, who consumes almost 600 liters. As such, in many rural Alaskan towns, water is often pooled in a communal washateria and reused throughout the day for all household activities, including hand washing.

Indeed, current solutions to the lack of clean water are dangerously antiquated, including basic handwashing stations that utilize two separate buckets, a copper faucet, and a foot pump to minimize unnecessary water wastage. Hazardous homemade bleach recipes are also being circulated since anti-bacterial hand wipes are almost impossible to come by. The twenty Western Alaskan communities currently living under lockdown are also confined to some of the densest housing conditions in the country. When up to 10 people are living in a two-bedroom house with one washtub and 5-gallon 'honey bucket' toilets, the act of handwashing becomes a risk in itself.

This lack of running water means that these Americans are no better protected than during the Spanish Flu, which devastated the same communities in 1918. One healthcare worker who was stationed in the area was scandalised by "the fact that [there] are American citizens living in 21st century America without running water... and having to crap in a bucket". This phenomenon has been responsible for other grave health problems in the past, such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, skin infections, respiratory illnesses, and considerably higher rates of infant hospitalization compared to the national average.

Yet the need for action has never been as pressing as it is today, with experts announcing in May that the risks of waterborne transmission of the novel coronavirus are higher than previously believed, and are especially notable in areas without adequate wastewater infrastructure. Under these sanitary conditions, a single infected resident is enough to bring entire villages to a total standstill.

If the problem is evident, however, solutions have so far seemed elusive. Alaska's 'Village Safe Water' program calculated that almost $1.4 billion was required to solve the sanitation situation in rural areas—a cash injection that's unlikely to be forthcoming in the current global economic downturn. At the same time, in order to reverse the tide of coronavirus cases, Alaskans must be given immediate access to clean and readily available water. Supplying communities with bottled water could be a convenient and inexpensive solution to solve the water crisis in the short term and slow the spread of the virus. There is no doubt, however, that long-term investment in water infrastructure is critical—and something that residents have been waiting decades for.

Although it is particularly egregious that communities in one of the wealthiest countries in the world do not have access to the clean water they need to stay healthy, the problem is by no means confined to Alaska. According to the UNESCO Chair in Water Sciences, Professor David Hannah, "The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the urgent need for global action on water security". The primary victims of this shortfall are young children—the World Health Organisation estimates that every year one million children under five die unnecessarily from lack of access to handwashing facilities.

UNICEF, meanwhile, reports that almost half of the world's population does not have access to safe drinking water. Long after the coronavirus pandemic is in the rear-view mirror, this issue will persist. Given the destabilizing impact that global warming will have on potable water supplies, even in wealthier communities who currently enjoy good access to clean sources of the vital resource, now is the time to act.

America in 2020 can no longer wash their hands of this problem. Safe and clean water is more than just a human right—it's a valuable step in protecting public health and should be a top priority around the globe. Communities like the Alaskan Native towns now struggling to contain the coronavirus need a clear strategy that should begin with the provision of bottled water and lead to full implementation of permanent water infrastructure. Temporary measures put in place to manage the coronavirus pandemic should spark a global volte-face, for a future in which water haulage and exposed wastewater are a thing of the past.

(Disclaimer: Devdiscourse's journalists were not involved in the production of this article. 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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