Assessing COVID-19 vulnerability and water sector interventions in the Indo-Pacific

The COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly challenging in developing parts of Asia where high population densities, combined with low infrastructure capacity, make social distancing interventions near impossible. These areas usually have inadequate health services—ill-equipped to handle the likely increase in patients. Similarly, in the Pacific, most countries have limited medical resources to manage the global pandemic.

The pandemic has caused us to rethink and reframe our priorities as a water sector. The World Health Organization has put forward that there are many benefits to COVID-19 responses that will be realised with improved access to safely managed water supply, sanitation, and hygiene. There has been a strong emphasis on safe hygiene practices, consistently forming a key part of the advice from public health and water authorities.

Prior to COVID-19, many countries in the Indo-Pacific region were already facing varying degrees of water insecurity. The pandemic has added another dimension of insecurity that, in some countries, is exacerbating already stressed water sectors—be it in water supply and sanitation, water for cities, food security, water sharing and allocation, or water for domestic and subsistence needs.

As part of the Australian Government’s response, the Australian Water Partnership (AWP) is supporting the International WaterCentre (IWC) and Griffith University to develop an evidence-based analytical framework and undertake a rapid assessment of vulnerability to respond to COVID-19 risks in the immediate-, medium- and long-term and index countries in the Indo-Pacific. This assessment will enable the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) to identify and prioritise which countries (that Australia has an existing cooperative track record with) need support in the preparedness, response, and recovery phases of COVID-19 from a water security perspective.

The water security risk index will build upon the Asian Water Development Outlook (AWDO) approach, which is partly funded by AWP, using its indices and datasets in building a COVID-19 assessment methodology and applying it across the Indo-Pacific. Additionally, specific factors related to pandemic risk and the COVID-19 pandemic will be incorporated. The assessment will also take into account water supply and sanitation, rural household water access, urban water supply and treatment, institutional-governance capability, disaster resilience and agricultural and economic water security.

This assessment would enable AWP and DFAT to quickly identify vulnerable countries where their COVID-19 water security response could be most impactful. Like AWDO, it would not only compare countries in the Indo-Pacific with one another according to their overall COVID-19 vulnerability but also understand which factors make the country more vulnerable, thereby allowing for more targeted international development response.

“We participated in a recent virtual workshop hosted by IWC and Griffith University to establish the methodology for the water security risk assessment, with country-level trials beginning this week. It is looking like an exciting tool for AWP and DFAT application across the water sector and more broadly” says AWP CEO Prof Nick Schofield.

The index deliberately uses a COVID-19 risk framework that considers all key factors that have a bearing on a country’s overall risk from COVID-19, distinguishing those that influence a country’s abilities to 1) Stay alert to pandemics in other countries; 2) Prevent/delay “entry” of the virus across its borders; 3) Contain the community transmission of the virus once it has penetrated its borders; 4) Treat those infected with the virus; 5) Mitigate subsequent substantial outbreaks of COVID-19 via herd immunity; and 6) Recover from the impacts of a COVID-19 outbreak.

It is within this broad contextual framework, that those factors related to water security in various ways are highlighted. This approach allows the most effective water-related interventions to be identified at any given phase of the epidemic within a country and recognises that prevention is more cost-effective than treatment.

Feature image: Child in Mumbai slums (credit: Adobe Stock / FiledIMAGE)
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