The COVID Pandemic As “X-Ray” – Zeroing In On Urban Water & Sanitation Gaps  
Globally, 785 million people lack a basic drinking-water service and over half of the world’s population could be water-stressed by 2025.

COVID has highlighted deep-seated weaknesses in urban water and sanitation systems that are vital to health – but the pandemic has also underlined how improvements can hit back at the SARS-CoV2 virus – as well as reducing other traditional waterborne diseases. 

That was a key message at a seminar Monday on “Water and Sanitation in the City” – sponsored by the Geneva Cities Hub, UN Habitat, and Geneva Water Hub, on the occasion of World Water Day. It was the first in a series of ‘Geneva Urban Debates.’ 

“COVID in some ways has given us a huge opportunity in the water sector, because it has acted as an x-ray,” said Graham Alabaster, Chief of the Geneva Office of UN Habitat. 

He pointed to evidence that showed in cities where hygiene standards were improved so as to combat the spread of the SARS-CoV2 virus, the incidence of waterborne diseases has dropped significantly. “So we know that the ideas around hygiene and providing people with water and sanitation work,” Alabaster added.

On the right, Graham Alabaster, Chief of the Geneva Office of UN Habitat, and on the left, Kamelia Kemileva, Executive Manager of Geneva Cities Hub.

Water also is a a critical “engine for economic growth” and a precondition for development, said Sami Kanaan, Mayor of Geneva and the President of the Geneva Cities Hub. It is an issue that converges with health, poverty, climate change, education, and livelihoods. 

“Increasing access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation is a crucial step in eradicating growing poverty and reducing inequality in cities,” said Kanaan. 

The importance of accessing water and sanitation has been highlighted by the COVID pandemic, whereby one of the key infection prevention measures promoted from the beginning by WHO was effective handwashing and other good hygiene measures.

And yet, in many low- and middle-income cities, low-income households and neighbourhoods are often left without reliable access to clean water and must buy it from private vendors, paying up to five times as much as that paid by middle class residents. That makes uptake of hygiene messages for disease prevention all the more challenging.  

Over Half of World’s Population May Be Water-Stressed by 2025

By 2025, over half of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas. And some 68% of the global population is projected to be living in cities by 2050, making urban challenges around the universal provision of safe water and sanitation all the more daunting. 

At the same time, some cities have found innovative ways to meet growing demands, and sharing urban experiences across continents can help improve cities’ performance, the panelists underlined.  

The panelists highlighted the need to move beyond an approach to water and sanitation focused merely on service provision; instead attention also needs to be paid to broader assessments of water resources, the effective distribution of water, and sustainable financing for infrastructure. 

“We need an effective multi stakeholder framework, it must be an institutional will and institutional intention at the city level, with the support of the upper institutional levels,” said Kanaan. “Water management needs cooperation of all levels.”

Sami Kanaan, Mayor of Geneva and President of the Geneva Cities Hub, at the ‘Water & Sanitation in Cities’ event on Monday.

“Sustainable management of fresh water is a vital issue of this century at the center of health security, food security, energy security, and in short human security,” said François Münger, General Director of the Geneva Water Hub. 

Conference Featured Stories from Kenya, Tanzania, Nepal & Mauritania 

The conference featured good practices from cities in in Mauritania, Tanzania, Nepal and Kenya highlighting how public and public-private partnerships involved in managing urban water and sanitation had brought about change, in some of the following ways: 

Informal settlements in Dar-es-Salam, Tanzania.

Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania – Only 10% of the city’s 7 million people have sewer connections or safe onsite septic tanks.  New approaches have revolved around “simplified sewerage” hookups, that involve laying small diameter pipes at a fairly flat gradient/slope to sewer ponds. The municipal water and sewerage utility provide technical support and finance, while households in the community provide space and labour to lay the pipes. A more recent pilot has connected households to a community-based waste water treatment plant (DEWAT) that produces biogas from the methane extracted from the sewage. The biogas then provides a clean and climate friendly fuel source for household cooking.

Nairobi, Kenya – Chronic water shortages affecting some 60% of the population have been traced to the conversion of wetlands and forests that form the watershed for the Tana River – into agriculture land. The unsustainable agricultural development has increased volumes of sedimentation that enter the river with rainfall, reducing the flow of the river and its watershed which supply 95% of the water for Nairobi’s population and causing blockages in water treatment facilities.

Several public and private partners joined to provide training and tools to over 25,000 farmers upstream on river and soil conservation and to restore forest land. These efforts have benefited farmers, by increasing agricultural yields by over US$3 million per year, and city residents, with 27 million more litres of water available every day for the city’s water needs.

The steps involved in the Upper Tana Nairobi Water Fund project in Kenya.

Dhulikhe, Nepal –  A national sanitation and hygiene campaign was launched in 2010, leading to the prioritisation of investment in sanitation facilities and increasing access to sanitation for the majority of households. In the country’s Dhulikhel municipality, the local government passed a ‘’one house, one tap’’ policy with the goal of providing safe drinking water to every household in the city. The plan arranged for every resident to get 65 liters of water per day. 

Dhulikhel also joined Banepa and Panauti, all in the Kavre district, to collaborate and manage drinking water in an integrated manner. The project identified and mapped existing drinking water sources and established Water Supply User Committees to represent and engage local communities in governmental water supply schemes and improve investment in the needs of communities.

Health Impacts of Poor Access to Clean Water and Sanitation 

Long before COVID, diarrhoea was estimated to kill some 829,000 people a year, as a result of unsafe drinking water and poor sanitation, according to the World Health Organization. Contaminated drinking water – which may be due to the encroachment of sewage or industrial pollutants into drinking water resources – is estimated to cause 485, 000 diarrhoeal deaths each year.

Many neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), which infect millions of people worldwide, are water or hygiene-related and are most often found in places with unsafe drinking water, poor sanitation, and insufficient hygiene practices.

Some of the biggest challenges occur in fast-growing cities, where sprawling informal settlements often develop on the periphery, without adequate water and sanitation infrastructure planning – leaving only ad hoc approaches. 

Poor sanitation in informal settlements disproportionately impacts women and girls, with an estimated 335 million girls attending schools without access to safe latrines, not to mention water and soap for hygiene. Deprived of adequate sanitation and hygiene facilities, adolescent girls may just avoid school on days when they are menstruating.  

Improved water, sanitation and hygiene has the potential to prevent at least 9.1% of the global disease burden and 6.3% of all deaths, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Image Credits: UNHCR, Geneva Cities Hub, Geneva Cities Hub.

Combat the infodemic in health information and support health policy reporting from the global South. Our growing network of journalists in Africa, Asia, Geneva and New York connect the dots between regional realities and the big global debates, with evidence-based, open access news and analysis. To make a personal or organisational contribution click here on PayPal.