Coronavirus & Water Pandemics: Doing the Math

Open sewage in Uganda slum. Credit: I. Jurga, SuSanA

By Vladimir Smakhtin
HAMILTON, Canada, Mar 19 2020 (IPS)

As the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic spreads, guidance on how
wash your hands and other measures intensifies.

These recommendations are important, but they are hardly of
value to the 40% of humanity lacking access to even the most basic
hand washing requirements — soap and water

In most African countries or India, the proportion is even
higher – between 50% and 80% of the population.

Even many health centres lack facilities for hand hygiene and
safe segregation and disposal of health care waste

In the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), basic water services
are absent in 55% of health centers, used by an estimated 900
million people — more than the population of the USA and Europe

More than 1 million deaths each year – newborns and mothers
– are associated with unclean births. Overall, poor sanitation
and a lack of safe drinking water take the lives of an estimated
4.3 million people annually 3.

This ongoing health crisis — a “water illness pandemic” in
all but official definition — has been around for generations
but, unlike COVID-19, hardly makes a ripple in international

It is unfair to say nothing has been done about it, but progress
is so slow 45 that many members
of vulnerable groups are likely to continue dying without ever
having known what it means to have clean water within a five minute
walk, much less a home tap.

Since the year 2000, this hidden water pandemic has quietly
killed more people than World War II 6.

And it is on pace to kill over 40 million more — roughly equal
to the population of Canada — in the next 10 years, by which time
the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the UN’s Agenda 2030
are supposed to have been met.

Those 17 goals include one that aims to “ensure availability
and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.”

During the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) crisis of
2002-2003, nearly 8,100 people were infected and nearly 800 died.
COVID-19 is much less deadly but has already infected 25 times as
many people. So, human losses are now over 10 times more than those
due to SARS and they keep growing.

Be that as it may, even as COVID-19 takes more lives in the
remainder of 2020 despite all efforts of health care providers, and
all the measures already taken by governments around the world, the
toll will almost surely be dwarfed by the four million people
likely to die this year from the lack of safe WAter, Sanitation and
Hygiene (WASH).

And the water pandemic deaths will not make headlines.

Those who die due to the water pandemic are, naturally, poor.
They do not trade or travel internationally, they do not have
mortgages, they do not buy insurance. Callous world financial
markets pay little attention.

The ongoing water pandemic is even more distressing because many
prerequisites for eradicating it already exist. We know how many
people do not have WASH, and we know where they live. We even know
precisely what to do — the technologies needed are available,
including low-cost ones.

The problem is primarily a lack of political will and finance,
and each, of course, connects to the other.

The water pandemic is not particularly “sexy,” nor visible
in the myriad of other problems that many countries face. Even a
decent politician who makes it a priority issue will likely be
distracted within her or his term.

As for financing, about 20 years ago we needed an estimated USD
24 billion per year on average over 10 years to bring low-cost,
safe water and sanitation to all those who needed it then
(inclusive of population growth) 7.

That was probably an underestimate, but even that number was
never met. And the shortfall of some USD 17 billion was about equal
to annual pet food purchases in Europe and USA…

The absolute numbers required now have not changed much —
roughly USD 28 billion per year (from 2015 to 2030) to extend basic
WASH services to all those unserved 8. With
“safely managed” “continuously available,” and
“improved” services, the annual requirement rises to USD 114
billion. Yet, four years into the SDG era, we have not been able to
meet the required financing levels even for basic services.

To meet the goals by 2030, we will, naturally, need more in the
remaining decade, but it is difficult to express optimism that this
will be achieved, even though the investment required represents
just around 3% of NATO’s total annual military spending.

It would also be naive to think that suddenly the world would
focus entirely on the water pandemic.

And, let’s face it, resolving a big development problem like
the lack of WASH requires political stability and the absence of
corruption, neither of which is the case in many of the most acute
problem areas. So, most likely and unfortunately, progress will
only continue slowly.

Can today’s coronavirus crisis “help” accelerate this
progress? It might, if the virus seriously hits the countries with
low levels of WASH and that, in turn, elevates even higher the
risks and levels of infection in wealthier countries.

Only then funds might flow, motivated by self-interest of the
world’s most fortunate people. The world really needs to
“internalize” caring about the lack of WASH to resolve it. One
wonders if it ever will.

So, for the time being, at the very least, stay safe from
COVID-19 yourself. Wipe your desk and wash your hands, if you are
lucky enough to have water.
8 Hutton, G. and Varughese, M. (2016) The Costs of
Meeting the 2030 Sustainable Development Goal Targets on Drinking
Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene. Summary Report. World Bank Group,
11 pp

The post Coronavirus
& Water Pandemics: Doing the Math
appeared first on
Inter Press Service.


This article is to commemorate World Water Day on March


Vladimir Smakhtin is Director of the UN University
Institute for Water, Environment and Health, funded by the
Government of Canada and hosted by McMaster University, Hamilton,

The post Coronavirus
& Water Pandemics: Doing the Math
appeared first on
Inter Press Service.

Source: FS – All – Ecology – News
Coronavirus & Water Pandemics: Doing the Math