COVID-19 and Water Resources Management: Reframing our priorities as a water sector

By Marian  J. Neal

The water sector has an important role to play in our immediate response to COVID-19 as well as in the recovery and rebuilding phases as the world readjusts to a range of legacy impacts from the pandemic. This role spans and incorporates the breadth and depth of the various domains and disciplines of water resources management.

COVID-19 is shining an unflattering light on the weak points in the approaches, tools and systems that we have built, or are attempting to build, in striving to achieve equitable and sustainable management of our water resources around the world.

The strength of water, the uniqueness of water, is that it is connected to and embedded within most of the goods and services that we rely on as individuals, communities, countries and regions.

COVID-19 is testing the strength of these interconnections and interdependencies and is revealing just how important water is in addressing the health, food, transport, environmental and economic crises that are unfolding before us. A recognition that water is an essential service will enhance our ability to respond, recover and rebuild a post-COVID-19 world and provides an opportunity for us to rethink and reprioritise our interests, ambitions and resources.

Water and WASH

The most obvious and immediate water and COVID-19 link is the risk this pandemic poses to the ability of water service providers (both formal and informal) to guarantee the supply of water of a suitable quality, to enable sanitation and hygiene practices that limit the spread of the virus. In a developing country context, many water utilities were already under pressure prior to the pandemic due to the lack of resources dedicated to expanding distribution networks, building water treatment plants, addressing ongoing maintenance of infrastructure, and/or enhancing capacity to manage systems and maintain standards. Indeed, many rural communities still lack any formal water service. Water service providers now face even more challenges with business continuity at risk along the whole water supply and treatment value chain, which could have disastrous health consequences if further disrupted by COVID-19.

In the Pacific, the Pacific Water and Wastewater Association (PWWA) is playing a critical role in disseminating key messages to its 31 water utility members from 21 countries in the Pacific—the simple and basic method of washing hands is said to be the most effective action in preventing the spread of COVID-19 amongst people. And yet, according to PWWA CEO, Lusia Sefo Leau:

“we are all aware not all of our communities have access to water.”

The imperative of achieving SDG 6.1 and 6.2—universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all, and access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all, respectively—is now more important than ever.

Water and Cities

In the urban water management domain, areas at greater risk—since some form of lock-down has been instigated in most countries—are densely populated urban centres and peri-urban informal settlements, where social distancing and access to running water for hand-washing is nearly impossible.

As COVID-19 unfolds in Pakistan, the impact on the informal urban population surrounding the major cities is a palpable threat to human lives and the health care sector’s ability to cope with increasing numbers of serious cases. There are an estimated 34 million people in Pakistan who live in katchi abadis or urban informal settlements, where water is scarce for the most basic of needs. Many informal households are already paying for trucked-in water at exorbitant prices—the luxury of using this precious, expensive water for handwashing places undue burden on these households.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a wake-up call to urban planners and municipal bureaucrats to integrate water sensitive urban design and water-smart cities into their policies and practices, and this includes peri-urban informal settlements. The highly unequal access to adequate urban infrastructure and services can be addressed by adopting a water sensitive city approach that embraces, inter alia, clean and reliable water supplies, protection from flooding, restoring waterways from concrete drains to more natural forms, groundwater replenishment schemes, urban food production, community recreational parks and gardens, and a circular economy approach to water treatment, recycling and reuse.

SDG 11 aspires to “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. Water has a direct impact on the resilience and liveability of cities.

Water and Food

The interdependencies of water security and food security have been tested, as transportation and trade routes have been restricted and reduced in an attempt to flatten the curve of the spread of the virus, bringing into sharp focus the need to ensure water availability and access for subsistence needs and domestic food production. For water-scarce and stressed countries, that means paying particular attention to water use efficiency approaches, mechanisms, and technologies that allow for local production to meet basic nutrition needs and to ease the demand pressure of this thirsty sector. According to Claudia Sadoff, Director General of IWMI:

“water management must reinforce the stability of food systems. Among the most critical priorities will be securing irrigation for disrupted agricultural cycles while meeting basic domestic needs…”

There is a delicate balance here that needs to be navigated with skill and maturity to ensure that the best of globalisation (through existing fair global trade agreements) and the best of domestic productivity are married in a fashion that benefits the individual, the community, the country and the region from a food and water security perspective. Understanding this complementarity as we rebuild and recover our economies needs to be accompanied by sustainable land and water practices that protect natural resources if we are to strengthen the robustness of our food and agricultural systems to similar shocks in the future.

COVID-19 is disrupting many activities in agriculture and supply chains in India. The sometimes brutal enforcement of lockdown and social distancing protocols is interrupting the ability of the migrant labour base to participate in harvesting activities which is having a knock-on effect on food supply and availability that in a worst case scenario could result in widespread famine. This is a fate that may well present itself to many countries while still in the throes of responding to the immediate impacts of COVID-19, as well as during the economic rebuilding phase post a COVID-19 peak.

The food SDG, number 2, highlights the issues that we should focus our attention on in this sector—namely end hunger and malnutrition; increase agricultural productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers; implement resilient agricultural practices; increase investment in rural infrastructure and agricultural research; and correct trade restrictions and distortions in world agricultural markets.

Water and Environment

The health of our freshwater ecosystems underpins any social and economic ambitions that we might have. Thus, the good governance of our river basins and catchments is a cornerstone to building resilient systems that are robust to disturbances such as COVID-19. Ensuring sufficient water is available for water-dependent ecosystems and that our rivers are not over-extracted and polluted is a wise strategy that contributes to our long-term human wellbeing and ability to recover faster from disasters, climate change impacts, and disrupters to sustainable development and growth.

Healthy freshwater ecosystems comprise diverse fauna and flora and dynamic feedback loops with soil, atmosphere and human systems that operate in a manner that is resilient against perturbations. Healthy ecosystems provide immeasurable benefits to humans ranging from mitigation against flooding; reducing sedimentation of reservoirs and lakes; preventing saltwater intrusion into groundwater resources; hydropower generation; water recreation; transportation; food and fibre production; spiritual uses, customs and rituals; aesthetic appreciation and tourism, as well as numerous extractive water uses.

According to the United Nations:

“the 2020 targets of SDG 15 are unlikely to be met, land degradation continues, biodiversity loss is occurring at an alarming rate, and invasive species and the illicit poaching and trafficking of wildlife continue to thwart efforts to protect and restore vital ecosystems and species.”

Many developing countries have a rich and relatively undisturbed biodiversity and a large segment of the population that relies directly on the goods and services that rivers provide. The Mekong River in South-East Asia is one example. The Mekong River flows through six countries—China, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam—and supports the livelihoods of an estimated 60 million people. As COVID-19 impacts on the Mekong riparian countries at different times and with different levels of severity, the importance of cooperation over shared water resources increases, as countries are able to build on existing trusted relationships by offering support and solidarity in the COVID-19 response and rebuilding phases. The Mekong River Commission (MRC) plays a critical role in this region by providing a regional governance framework that can address and respond to threats to water, food and energy security. The MRC recognises the importance of the ecological health of the river and the social and economic wellbeing of the people dependent on the river.

International and transboundary cooperation over shared water resources, a nuanced understanding of how cooperation and conflict interact, and utilising thinking-and-working-politically approaches to reflect and respond to dynamic political economies are critical to regional stability. In those regions of the world, where governments and economies are fragile and conflict impacted, water sharing governance arrangements can play an invaluable role in keeping dialogue and knowledge exchange doors open between riparian countries. Cooperation over water can enhance and, in some cases, keep communication channels open when broader diplomatic tensions arise between countries.

Water and Gender Equality, Disability and Social Inclusion (GEDSI)

This quote from a recent WaterAid article captures the essence of how COVID-19 interfaces with GEDSI:

The poorest and least powerful sections of all societies are likely to be worst affected in crises, but we can work to alleviate inequalities through our response.

Women and girls who are collectors of water used by the household or community are already recognised as a group that is negatively impacted in terms of their education, livelihoods and personal safety; the added dimension of COVID-19 has exacerbated this disadvantage and in some regions, social distancing and lock-down rules have resulted in a re-emergence of the gendered role of caring for those infected with the virus falling predominately on women.

Those members of the community that have a disability or are marginalised for various reasons are often completely forgotten in water resources management. COVID-19 has exposed and deepened the inequalities that exist. It is heartening to discover organisations that are explicitly developing disability-inclusive community responses to COVID-19 and creating online resource centres to support an immediate humanitarian response.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development embraces the realisation of human rights for all—leaving no one behind. Adopting a human rights approach to water management is imperative if we are to achieve the SDGs but also if we want to build a more resilient world as we reconstruct livelihoods and economies as we transition from COVID-19 response to recovery. Countries will be emerging from the impacts of COVID-19 at different times and via different pathways, creating an opportunity for countries that are able to assist and support other countries in human and humane ways. Because water provides an entry point into every aspect of human life and every sector of our globalised and interconnected world, we should take this opportunity to fully embrace a human rights approach in our immediate, medium- and long-term water-related responses to COVID-19. Designing multiple-use systems that provide water for power, food, households and the environment is worth exploring and promoting.

Concluding Remarks: Opportunities to Strengthen Water Governance

COVID-19 has illustrated how one, albeit devastating, issue or variable has infiltrated and impacted on every aspect of our lives—a harsh lesson in understanding complex systems and how,

when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” – John Muir

COVID-19 can be described as a threat multiplier to the existing pressures, drivers and threats to our ambitions of a sustainable world. Climate change has also been described as a threat multiplier. We now have two threat multipliers that intersect with water challenges—it is difficult to untangle simple cause and effect relationships that we can use to define problems, that we can act on and resolve. We need to adopt a systems-thinking approach if we are to succeed in addressing multifaceted issues and threats. Often the complexity of the problem can seem overwhelming; how do we begin to understand and address the ‘wicked’ problems we are faced with? Water provides the key. If we get our water management right—recognise how it is interconnected, develop holistic-integrated solutions—then we will have some chance in addressing the challenges that threaten to undermine our lives and livelihoods. Water is ‘hitched’ to everything else in the universe—it is an essential service; it is a variable that, if we pull in the right direction, can have a positive knock-on effect at many levels (individual, household, community, country and region) as well as over different time intervals (immediate, medium- and long-term).

Governments, donors, multilateral banks, and organisations should be cognizant that COVID-19 is more than just a health issue, and therefore they can activate more than just the health sector in the response and recovery phases of COVID-19. This is a crucible moment if ever there was one, and the water sector has an opportunity to provide strong and effective leadership at this time. Governments can and should make policy and practice changes to ensure that there are some long-term positive outcomes of the COVID-19 legacy.

The Australian Water Partnership (AWP) is the flagship water resources management initiative of the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). The AWP raison d’être is to provide support to our neighbouring countries in the Indo-Pacific region. The AWP is a unique partnership-based initiative, comprising approximately 200 Australian water sector organisations/experts that deliver bespoke and enduring solutions to sustainable water resource management challenges. The AWP is one mechanism that enables the Australian water sector to demonstrate leadership by assisting our neighbours as we collectively respond and recover to this COVID-19 impacted world we find ourselves in.

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