Published on The Water Blog

Can COVID-19 accelerate urban water security?

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Urban water solutions Urban water solutions

“Never let a good crisis go to waste."  — Winston Churchill


Like all acute stressors, the COVID-19 pandemic acts as a multiplier of chronic, pre-existing vulnerabilities - including water scarcity and rapidly growing, severely underserviced, informal populations in urban settings - dramatically accelerating water insecurity. Indeed, while stemming the virus' tide requires improved hygiene practices, an estimated 2.2 billion people lack access to potable water, and 4.2 billion lack access to safely managed sanitation services. This means decisions made in the face of COVID-19 will determine our ability to achieve SDG-6 — safe water and sanitation for all.  

More than anything, fostering safe, sustainable and accessible water for us all requires immediate action based on solid evidence and combined with long-term planning and significant resource commitment.  And it challenges us to answer what is to be done? as COVID-19 forces decision-making into  “crisis response mode”, often raising questions about the veracity of those decisions.

Now, in facing the interrelated complex challenges brought on by COVID-19, we at W12+, together with UNESCO IHP, are focused on the pandemic's potential as a catalyst towards realizing SDG-6. This is particularly urgent in the Global South, where households now face stark choices, like deciding whether to use limited amounts of clean water for drinking or for handwashing, or having women and girls queue more frequently and for longer periods to fetch additional water (increasing risk of transmission, causing households to spend higher percentages of monthly income on water, and girls missing school).

In this, we are already seeing grassroots organizations and small-scale entrepreneurs such as iMoSyS, a private company in Lilongwe, Malawi, making a crucial impact.  iMoSyS created an innovative technology to upgrade communal taps and introduce pre-paid smart cards - refilled electronically as a contactless means of payment at water kiosks. This reduces reliance on specific kiosk service hours, limits in-person contacts, decreases exposure time in long queues, and has garnered significant international interest in being replicated. 

In another example, a local water utility in Mombasa, Kenya, saw substantial changes in revenue patterns after partnering with international NGO, Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP). Prior to COVID-19 impeding travel, industrial consumers (particularly tourism) made up a significant amount of the utility’s revenue. Then, for the first time, during COVID-19, household consumers, especially in informal settlements, made up a majority of the utility’s customers. This proves that low-income consumers are a viable market and will pay for good quality clean water and makes conversations about governance that equitably balances market forces with social need, more important than ever.

Water insecurity is not just a phenomenon in the Global South. In California for example, approximately 1.6 million households have a combined water debt of $1 billion, while 155,000 households each owe more than $1,000 to their water departments. Consumers' diminished ability to pay directly impacts utilities’ capacity to foster long-term sustainability, and this is likely to worsen globally, as the COVID-driven economic crisis continues. 

To address these many challenges and optimize their opportunities, UNESCO IHP, through its globally recognized initiatives, is heavily invested in better decision making for resilient urban water futures. It is actively supported by W12+ to explore effective water solutions through multi-sector and stakeholder perspectives focused on the nexus of urban water issues made more acute by COVID-19. These, as the International Finance Corporation notes, coalesce into five major trends: (a) climate change challenging the resilience of water and sanitation systems, (b) more people living in areas facing water stress (currently 2 billion), (c) rapid urbanization straining water resources and ecosystems, (d) the emergence of megacities, with about 1 billion people not served by water grids, (e) aging infrastructure, following decades of underinvestment.

Here, several questions need answering: How do cities worldwide cooperate to each avoid “reinventing the wheel”? What localized solutions can be adapted and replicated elsewhere? How can actions have cumulative positive impact and not work at cross-purposes?  Specifically, how can we improve food security without sucking water away from thirsty cities? And how do growing cities optimize available water resources?

Ultimately, interventions cannot be reactive and driven by the pandemic. What is required is a decisive approach that steps back, takes stock and acts collectively in focused and coordinated ways . To achieve this, we’ll be deep-diving into the confluence of COVID-19 and water security over the next months - highlighting the innovative and collaborative thinking of today, which shapes our combined urban water security of tomorrow. 


*The views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Bank.*



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