World Water Day was recently celebrated to highlight the importance of clean water. Almost all human activities require water, including food production, energy generation, and health provision. Globally, 800 million people, mostly in developing countries, do not have access to clean water. Lack of clean water contributes to a myriad of health problems such as diarrhea cholera, and dysentery. Every year, 3.4 million people, mostly children, die from water-related diseases. Water is also crucial in the current fight against COVID-19, as frequent handwashing can significantly reduce the spread of the virus. This means those 800 million people who have no access to clean water are highly vulnerable to the illness. The current COVID-19 pandemic is a sobering reminder that clean water is a critical requirement for human health.
At the time of this writing, the virus has infected more than 330,000 people in 173 countries and killed 14,000. On March 11, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. With the exception of a few countries such as Taiwan and South Korea, governments around the world are struggling to contain the spread of the virus. Italy now has more deaths than China, while the United States and other European countries continue to see spikes in cases and deaths.
In many developing countries, containing the spread of COVID-19 will be extremely challenging as they are already dealing with ongoing economic issues and weak healthcare systems.
COVID-19 went undetected in many developing countries for a few months. Pakistan confirmed its first case as late as February 26, while Indonesia’s first case was only reported in early March. Yet, Southeast Asia now has more than 3,200 cases and in Africa, more than 1,100 cases have been confirmed. The numbers will only continue to rise. Governments in Egypt, Peru, and Nigeria have all imposed travel restrictions and banned public gatherings in their efforts to contain the virus.
However, preventing the spread of COVID-19 also requires proper hygiene, which includes frequent handwashing for 20 seconds. While this may seem like a simple hygiene practice, there are millions of people who cannot wash their hands as they do not have access to clean water. According to UNICEF, forty percent of people around the world do not have access to handwashing facilities and soap in their homes. Fifty percent of schools in developing countries do not have handwashing facilities.
In Africa, 258 million people do not have access to handwashing facilities. Many people who live in Africa and Asia must walk for more than 10 kilometers to obtain water from distant sources and the water is often contaminated with various harmful pathogens. Moreover, women mostly bear the responsibility to collect water, which deprives them of education and employment and exposes them to violence. For these people, frequent handwashing does not make too much sense as they already lack water for drinking purposes.
Healthcare facilities in developing countries lack access to clean water, increasing healthcare workers’ exposure to the virus as they are not able to wash their hands as frequently as they should. A study by WHO found that 1 in 5 healthcare facilities around the world does not have adequate basic water services. This situation will likely exacerbate the spread of COVID-19 in these countries.
The current COVID-19 pandemic shows that diseases can easily move from one country to another and become a global crisis. In this interconnected world, the lack of universal access to clean water can exacerbate global health risks. Therefore, improving global access to clean water must be a concerted effort by all countries.
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 provides a framework to ensure sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. However, the world is not on track to meet this goal and the amount of funding that goes into this effort must significantly increase. Rich countries can do more to help developing countries improve their water infrastructures and management.