Published on The Water Blog

From emergency response to resilient recovery: How we are helping the water sector in MENA cope with COVID-19

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Water sector in Arab region during COVID-19 Water sector in Arab region during COVID-19

In early July, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region passed a grim milestone, recording more than one million cases of COVID-19.

Handwashing with soap and water is critical and one of the most effective measures in preventing the spread of the virus. But while the region has made strides in achieving access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), 13% of the population – over 74 million people – still lack access to handwashing facilities, and another 87 million people lack access to improved water sources in their homes. This forces them to congregate at crowded public sources to collect water, immediately increasing the risk of contracting the virus. Refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPS) in the region are also particularly vulnerable to the virus; 26 million of them have no adequate WASH services.

The region is already the world’s most water-stressed region, with more than 60% of the population concentrated in places affected by high surface water stress.   Therefore, this rise in the demand for handwashing could exacerbate the region’s water insecurity by raising water consumption by up to five percent, or by an additional 4-5 million m3/day, which could cost between $150 -$250 million per month.  

Added to this existing challenge, COVID-19 pandemic has added an additional dimension with a range of social and economic impacts, putting substantial constraints on WASH services on a daily basis in the region  in places like Yemen, for example. Restrictions on the entry of materials, price increases, lack of supplies, and a smaller available workforce leads to a decrease in access and use of WASH services.  Poorer hygiene practices follow, further exacerbating the spread of COVID-19.

In order to alleviate the severity of the impact of the pandemic, immediate technical, material and financial inputs must be provided to sustain access to WASH commodities and the continuity of WASH services in places like Iraq for example.

After assessing the importance of water on the coronavirus response and the impact of the pandemic on the water sector in MENA, the World Bank developed a multi-phase approach to support its clients in the region – this includes, in the short-term, ensuring access to essential WASH services for all, especially those living in areas affected  by fragility, conflict and violence (FCV); continuity of service provision, improving performance of service providers, building more resilient water and sanitation systems in the medium term; and long-standing reforms by strengthening the financial and operational sustainability of utilities and promoting water-use efficiency (including increasing the low 18% of water reuse that the region has), in the long-term.  

The World Bank Group is also moving quickly to provide fast, flexible responses at the country-level to help governments and water utilities contain the spread and impact of COVID-19.   While the immediate concern is a focus on emergency WASH response and water availability, the goal will be a more sustainable, resilient recovery in the water sector.  Below are some specific WASH-related actions being taken in MENA countries:

  • In Morocco, the Bank is helping improve hygiene​ and water availability, conduct epidemiological studies of wastewater as a tool for early warnings​​, strengthen data collection systems, secure financial sustainability of utilities, explore new funding avenues, including further private sector engagement with our colleagues from IFC, and advocate for water sector and leveraging other donors support​
  • In Algeria, the Bank is assessing the impact of COVID-19 on the water sector to be included in a country engagement note. We are also preparing a project financed by the COVID-19 Fast Track Facility to support the country’s efforts to prevent, detect and respond to the threat posed by COVID-19 and strengthen systems for public health preparedness.
  • In Tunisia, the irrigation project was restructured to reallocate €13 million to COVID-19 emergency response component for medical supplies, equipment and personal protective equipment and disbursed in record time.  An emergency Development Policy Financing included support for the two state owned enterprises in the country in both water and sanitation.
  • In Egypt, as part of the PforR for rural sanitation, COVID-related awareness materials focusing on Information-Education-Communication (previously coordinated with UNICEF) were disseminated to utilities.
  • In Iraq, $20 million was reallocated from the water resources component to a health component through project restructuring on an urban project
  • In Jordan, a $20 million COVID-19 Fast Track multi-phase programmatic approach (MPA) response project was approved in May 2020 to support the design and implementation of effective public health measures to prevent contagion and will support the development and implementation of associated communication and behavior change interventions to support key prevention behaviors, such as hand-washing and social distancing, which besides helping contain the spread of COVID-19 helps against the spread of other climate-related conditions and water- or food-borne diseases.

In order to tackle COVID-19, countries in MENA will have to address the water crisis and as the World Bank Group we have an opportunity at hand here.  An effective emergency WASH response, regional cooperation on transboundary waters (60% of the water is shared in MENA), and a long-term strategy for a sustainable recovery in the water sector will be key in moving past this crisis to build resilience for the future and inclusive growth for the youth and women in the region.


Carmen Nonay

Director of IEG's Finance, Private Sector, Infrastructure, and Sustainable Development Department, World Bank Group

Rajesh Advani

Senior Infrasturcture Specialist, World Bank

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