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Can COVID-19 prove to be a shot in the arm for safe water infrastructure?

Even before the current pandemic crisis, inadequate water infrastructure posed a problem for countless individuals worldwide and significantly increased the global disease burden. Over three billion people cannot access soap and water in their own homes, while 900 million children are unable to properly wash their hands at school. Perhaps most shockingly of all, 40% of all healthcare facilities aren’t equipped for maintaining standards of proper hand hygiene.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated these problems. Since the first line of defense against the disease is practicing proper hygiene, many people are left vulnerable by their lack of access to clean water – not to mention that there are concerns that substandard wastewater treatment could facilitate the virus’s spread. With that in mind, these desperate times could be the perfect catalyst for long-overdue reforms in both the developing and the developed world.

Outbreak only highlights underlying issues

The upheaval of COVID-19 may have brought the insufficiency of water infrastructure into sharp focus, but it’s a problem that has long plagued parts of the world. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over two billion people draw their drinking water from a contaminated source, leading to the transmission of diseases such as cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, polio, and typhoid. Diarrhea from unclean water alone accounted for 829,000 deaths in 2016.

The issue is, unsurprisingly, accentuated by inequality. For example, 36% of schools worldwide have no hygiene facilities on the premises. This is a damning enough figure on its own, but some countries are particularly badly affected; fully 84% of Yemeni schools have no hygiene services. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) identified facilitating universal access to both safe drinking water and reliable sanitation and hygiene facilities as a priority by 2030. Much work remains to be completed if this goal is to be fulfilled in the coming decade.

Not just the developing world at risk

It should come as no surprise that vast swaths of the developing world are exposed to unsafe drinking water, given that this same issue remains a problem even in the world's largest economy. Over 2.2 million Americans have no access to running water or basic indoor plumbing in their homes, with around half of those residing within the most affluent US state, California. Indigenous communities like the Navajo Nation are particularly badly affected. Roughly 30% of the southwestern Navajo population doesn’t have running water in their homes.

In the absence of clean municipal water bottled water has proven a lifeline for this community. The Navajo Nation has even been crowdfunding the purchase of bottled water during the coronavirus crisis, but due to widespread stockpiling, H2O is not always an easy commodity to come at the moment.

This state of affairs is the result of years of inadequate handling of the issue. There are currently over 50,000 water utility companies in the US. The nature of such a sprawling and many-headed beast makes efficient performance and the enforcement of safety standards all but impossible. Meanwhile, many of the smaller companies don’t have the resources to perform routine maintenance work, leaving it deferred indefinitely to balance the books.

An economic quagmire

The end results of this patchwork system include chronic understaffing (around one-third of all vacancies in the industry remain unfilled), rampant rule-breaking (over 80,000 violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act are reported each year), and frequent water main breaks which themselves can spread waterborne disease (an estimated 240,000 water main breaks occurred in 2019 alone).

Of course, coronavirus is set to take an even greater toll on the industry. Because charges are linked directly to customer consumption and not the cost of upkeep, water utilities stand to lose an estimated $7 billion in revenue from industrial and commercial sources. Meanwhile, the economic crisis caused by COVID-19 means that everyday Americans are less capable of paying their bills, lumping a further $5.5 billion onto the utility companies’ income deficit. The situation is clearly an untenable one.

A way forward

Coronavirus, however, could provide the perfect impetus for reforming and redeveloping American water infrastructure. A coalition of over 500 organizations and prominent individuals from California have already written to the federal government, demanding that improved water infrastructure comprise an integral part of the coronavirus response strategy. That’s alongside the $25 billion that Democratic House leaders have proposed including in the next coronavirus stimulus bill, demonstrating that the political will is there.

It’s less clear what exact shape this reform should take. Consolidating the 50,000 utilities into a more manageable figure should surely represent a no-brainer, especially when taking into account the fact that almost 80% of disadvantaged and waterless communities in the San Joaquin Valley live within one mile of a community which does have access to potable water. Reconciling the difference in interests between the two parties may be challenging, but not insurmountable. This consolidation, in line with appropriate investment and emergency fund provisions, could revolutionize the US water system.

Reaping the rewards

Aside from the obvious health benefits of such an endeavor, the economic benefits of an improved water system also present a powerful argument. Studies show each dollar spent would see a return on investment of $2.50 in urban areas and $5 in rural zones. What’s more, every $1 billion invested into clean water infrastructure is also projected to create around 15,000 jobs for everyday Americans.

The same financial benefits are expected right across the globe. Should the UN be successful in its development goal of achieving universal access to safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene by 2030, the global burden could be reduced by as much as 10%. With that in mind, it’s to be hoped the current coronavirus crisis – as tragic and tumultuous as it has been – might finally impress upon our leaders the importance of water as an inalienable human right.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of EconoTimes

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