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Read the latest updates about the International WaterCentre, as well as contemporary water sector insights, water management news, and conversations with researchers, practitioners and students, from both Australia and abroad.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold, governments are focussed on hospital and intensive care unit (ICU) capacity and securing enough PPE for their health workers. In the emergency stages of response the focus on clinical and health sector responses dominated preventative measures. This prompted water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) focussed multilateral platforms such as Sanitation and Water for All (SWA) and UNICEF to lobby for a great focus on WASH as the first line of defence for this and future epidemics. SWA’s Call to Action highlights that WASH should be available to everyone, and, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals, eliminate inequalities and leave no-one behind. Of all the elements of WASH, handwashing with soap is a particularly critical one. SARS-CoV-2 is a virus with a lipid layer broken down by soap, and so washing hands with soap has never been more important for preventative health. Changing human behaviours is notoriously difficult: shifting hygiene and handwashing behaviours has been one of the toughest nuts to crack in WASH, and equally hard to measure. As videos of handwashing with soap (HWWS) go viral in social media and signs are plastered in public places more than ever, are we witnessing a renaissance for handwashing? If we are, it will have benefits for not only preventing the spread of covid-19 but also other water-borne diseases with high morbidity and mortality rates like diarrhoea. Yet so many communities lack the facilities to enact this barrier of defence, as currently highlighted by the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program. Globally 1 in 3 people do not have basic handwashing facilities at home (WSSCC), the bulk of them in lower and middle income countries. The situation in healthcare facilities is particularly alarming: 1 in 4 have no clean water on site; and 1 in 5 have no decent toilets (WaterAid). Of Australia’s nearest neighbours Timor Leste, only 28% of households have access to basic handwashing facilities (with water and soap). In Indonesia, 38% of the rural population (45 million) and 22% of the urban population (31 million) have no handwashing facility at all in their household (JMP 2017). Indonesia has registered 22,000 cases as of May but health specialists suggest this is probably an underestimate due to low levels of testing. In many instances even if households want to increase handwashing they are constrained by inequitable water access. In the five months since covid-19 started it has spread to more than 180 countries and 5 million people in that short space of time. From where I sit (at home in Australia), the data being presented in global press overwhelmingly emphasises the case loads of developed or middle income countries (e.g. US, Russia, South Korea, Italy, Brazil). Cases reported in countries with less robust healthcare and monitoring systems are less represented. Is this because they have fewer cases, or are less able to accurately measure them? It may be years before we know the answer to this, and this itself represents the possible inequitable toll the virus may take. The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on equity will take time to be revealed. In Australia, restrictions are having gendered impacts in essential services on women who are over-represented as nurses, carers and teachers, in access to paid work where more women have left employment due to economic downturn, and in the household where studies are showing women have taken on more of the domestic load. In contexts where access to WASH services is already challenging there are already well documented gender and social inclusion issues. How are covid-19 risks and restrictions altering or exacerbating existing inequalities in accessing WASH? What about in densely populated areas or in water scarce or flood-prone areas? WASH professionals need to consider intra- and inter-household equity issues within a do-no-harm framework. Covid-19 is highlighting inequalities within households and societies and between countries. There is no doubt that WASH is a first line of defence against this pandemic and there cannot be adequate responses without adequate WASH. We must understand the complexities and nuances of delivering adequate WASH as we continue to work towards improving these services and decreasing inequalities as we do so. The blog author, Bronwyn Powell is also a Water and WASH Specialist with over 20 years’ experience in the Asia-Pacific. Inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services impact on the health, livelihoods and wellbeing of many families around the world. Learn more in our Introduction to WASH Development Online Training Program. Details here.
Read more about IWC’s work in addressing social and gender inclusion issues in Fiji and Indonesia via the Australia government supported grant Engaging corporate actors for inclusive WASH-at-work linked to the Water for Women Fund.Banner image courtesy of Clear Water.
By mid-2021, the International Water Centre’s Dr Regina Souter hopes that many of the communities in the Solomon Islands and Fiji will have better access to safe and secure water, something that will dramatically improve health outcomes. Progress depends not so much on infrastructure as it does on local human capacity and political will, says the WASH and IWM specialist, who applies research and teaching to improve practical water management in the Pacific Islands. One of those research projects is Pacific Community Water Management Plus (PaCWaM+), which is a partnership with Griffith University, the University of South Pacific, and Solomon Islands National University, with the CSO Plan International Australia, Live and Learn Solomon Islands, Habitat for Humanity Australia, and Habitat for Humanity Fiji, as part of the Australian Government’s Water 4 Women Fund. “At the moment, many rural communities are supported to install water systems, but largely left on their own to operate and maintain the systems, including fixing unfamiliar technical problems or rehabilitating systems after disasters,” says Regina. “The PaCWaM+ research aims to identify ways communities can be better supported so that their water systems are more resilient, providing safe drinking water and meeting the needs of all members of the community, so that health and wellbeing are maximised.” There are also difficulties for communities in urban areas in accessing safe water and sanitation. “In Honiara in the Solomon Islands, 30 per cent of the population are living in unplanned settlements and most don’t have piped water services or safe sanitation,” says Regina.
Access to clean water is seen by many as a fundamental human right, but in some parts of the developing world, women are being forced to pay for it through ‘sextortion’. Pillar Avello, Program Manager for water governance at the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), says that the problem is pervasive.
On the way to down town, I always watch the construction companies extracting building materials from the Ntahangwa River, which snakes across Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, and flows into Lake Tanganyika. Workers regularly load their trucks with sand and stones that they’ve extracted from the river, which causes enormous problems for the surrounding residential areas and for the river itself. The Ntahangwa River has been permanently altered as a result of this execration activity. Today, the river flows uncontrolled in all directions. When it rains, the river breaks its bank, flowing into residential areas, destroying everything it encounters on the way. Moreover, the water has lost its quality and is now heavily polluted. Many poor surrounding residents who are not connected to the national water supply system have no choice but to the highly-polluted river water. Roger Niyonzima is a resident of Buyenzi suburb near the Ntahangwa River. “[The] Ntahangwa River has a become a danger for our life, no one can predict where it will pass, especially when it rains,” says Roger. “It enters homes and destroys everything on its passage. Many houses are often destroyed by floods coming from the river and we become displaced in our own homeland.” “The water is no longer ‘life’, as it is often said. This one is poison. I learnt at school that water has no colour, no smell but just look, our water looks like chocolate and it smells bad. We are obliged to use it because we are poor families without access to the clean water supply.”
On an overcast mid-morning in downtown Nairobi, the roads are muddy and trenches strewn with garbage. That same garbage will invariably end up in the Nairobi River, which snakes through the city. In the informal settlements downstream. The river is so polluted with all manner of garbage and industrial effluent. Sometimes dead bodies wash up. Rehabilitation initiatives have yielded minimal success. The capital of 4.3 million people depend on water from the neighbouring Muranga County, while ironically, the permanent Nairobi River is rendered unusable. Standing on a restored riparian patch on the banks of Nairobi River where a dumpsite stood last year, Fred Okinda, a resident of Korogocho recalls his younger days with nostalgia. In the early 1990's he would swim with his friends in the river a short distance from his home. “Every day after school, swimming was our sport and we would come here with friends. The water was so clean,” he said.