Coronavirus: what might more hand washing mean in countries with water shortages?

Different strategies for resisting the spread of the new coronavirus have emerged in different countries. But the one that has cut through everywhere is simple and, supposedly, can be done by anyone: “Wash your hands with water and soap for at least 20 seconds.”

This advice takes plentiful safe water for granted, but in many parts of the world, clean fresh water isn’t guaranteed. Where it is, it may be in scarce supply. What will happen in such places if and when the pandemic escalates and the need for proper sanitation grows ever more urgent?

According to the World Health Organization, frequent and thorough hand washing can help reduce your chances of contracting infectious diseases such as COVID-19. Worldwide statistics for 2017 revealed that poor sanitation and limited access to hand-washing facilities contributed to around 1.5 million deaths. Nearly 2.2 billion people are currently living without safely managed water outlets, and around 22% of healthcare facilities in the least developed countries lack basic water services.

Clean water and good hygiene is the absolute minimum that’s needed to combat the spread of the new coronavirus. But in sub-Saharan Africa, the World Bank reported that around 75% of people living in rural areas live in homes that lack adequate facilities for hand washing. One charity working in the Western Province of Kenya found that 95% of the households they visited had no access to running water.

Fears are high that should COVID-19 gain traction in Africa, it could have a devastating impact. EPA-EFE/AKINTUNDE AKINLEYE

It’s been known for a while that countries without a reliable system of supplying water to everyone are likely to be more vulnerable to infectious diseases. The mortality rates from diarrhoea in 2017 were highest in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Here, unsafe drinking water and poor sanitation were the highest risk factors for developing the disease among people who are 70 years and older.

Likewise, 72% of deaths from diarrhoea among children under five in 2016 were caused by unsafe water, mostly in drought-prone countries in southern Africa. But even places with a sufficient supply of clean water are likely to face an intolerable strain as frequent hand washing becomes essential.

A tipping point

In Jordan, where over 93% of people had access to safe water in 2015, a water sector official recently declared that demand for water has jumped by 40% since the government ordered people to stay home as part of a nationwide curfew. That’s on top of a steady rise in water demand of 22% since 2011, as Syrian refugees have arrived, fleeing the civil war. The growing population has limited each individual’s share of water in Jordan to less than 80 litres per day.

The sudden increase in water demand in countries where supply is already strained could cause widespread shortages. But in places where a regular, safe water supply doesn’t exist, the risk of infection could multiply.

Like COVID-19, water scarcity is a global problem that needs collective action. There is no more urgent a time to address the world’s water crisis than now, when people are constantly being reminded to use water to combat the spread of the virus.

Workers seal drinking water bottles that will be delivered to homes under curfew in Amman, Jordan. EPA-EFE/ANDRE PAIN

Acting on climate change is one way to limit the droughts that are behind many surface-water shortages, as is reforming agriculture to reduce pumping for irrigation. Managing water sources as a commons, with access guaranteed to all, is equally important.

The COVID-19 health crisis has taught us so far that collective action is the proper way to address a common problem, if not the only one. This should compel researchers to do all they can to communicate their findings and expertise, to bridge the gap between the scientific community and everyone else. Sharing knowledge within the community in a more inclusive way would help others devise innovative solutions for protecting water sources, improving sanitation and developing hygiene projects.

Let the COVID-19 outbreak remind us all how important safe running water is in keeping us healthy, and spare a thought for those who cannot count on it always flowing. Ensuring that clean water and hygiene is a right guaranteed to all is an urgent demand for global justice, but it is also vital in preparing the world to resist the development of future pandemics.

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