Published on The Water Blog

Responses to the COVID crisis in LAC’s water and sanitation sector: Opportunities for greater connectivity

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With contributions from Rafael Vera.

As soon as the first COVID-19 cases were confirmed in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), countries across the region quickly mobilized emergency measures to provide safe water supply and sanitation (WSS) to its citizens. Since then, the World Bank’s Water Global Practice has been monitoring new measures introduced in 19 countries in the LAC region and 17 states in Brazil to track sector-wide responses and learn from successful  examples.[i]

In LAC, where the informal sector is predominant, the financial impact of the lockdown means that spending on WSS utility bills has become a struggle for many households. As a result, sector responses have largely focused on providing direct support to cover service fees, either through waiving or deferring water bill payments and freezing tariff adjustments to ease the economic burden of the pandemic—both on households and utilities. While these measures have been essential to ensure immediate water supply for the population, the impacts to an already vulnerable sector in a post-COVID scenario could mean decreased cashflows for utilities, a hampered payment culture among WSS users, or reduced workforce and systems maintenance upkeeping.

Even so, the various sector response measures in the region reveal signs that the unforeseen health crisis has presented utilities with opportunities for enhanced connectivity: from reaching the unserved populations with potable water, to increased technological dependence and an enhanced relationship between the sector and other stakeholders and citizens. These elements are key to turning around WSS utilities. So, what signals of greater connectivity have we spotted within LAC’s WSS sector?

Connectivity: reaching unserved households through enhanced multi-sector partnerships. The lack of clean water for proper hygiene practices is a major concern for cities in the region, especially in slums and peri-urban areas. As one of the responses to the pandemic, some countries have introduced Emergency Decrees requesting that WSS utilities ensure the free supply of water for unconnected communities. In some cases, water utilities have engaged in multi-sector partnerships to deliver potable water. In Peru, the water utility of Lima (SEDAPAL) collaborated with the Peruvian Navy, the sector Ministry and district municipalities to distribute bottled water to unconnected and hard-to-reach communities. The Costa Rican Institute of Aqueducts and Sewers (AyA), along with the National Emergency Commission, distributed drinking water to community-based WSS organizations and indigenous communities - benefiting more than 4,000 people and 250 indigenous families. The Guayaquil Municipal Water and Sanitation Company (EMAPAG) and the local government are distributing free drinking water to the poorest regions of Guayaquil, Ecuador. In Mexico, a collaboration between the National Water Commission (CONAGUA), private companies and the municipal government are bringing water to communities with limited access in some of the most populated cities.

Connectivity: a new work modality. While National Emergency Decrees in LAC dictated a ‘work from home’ policy, they also clearly stipulated exemptions for key WSS sector workers, such as those announced by the Governments of Bolivia and Chile. Such measures have been enacted with the introduction of new work modalities and procedures to protect staff and clients while ensuring continued service provision. Many utilities have sent their 60+ workers home, requested that administrative staff work from home and required operational/technical employers to continue working in the field.  Against all odds, in a region where working from home is not the norm and  a dependence on hard-copy documentation is dominant, administrative staff had to learn to complete their tasks remotely, and the need to have all available data on an online cloud to facilitate information sharing has never been greater. Some sector agencies, such as the National Water and Sanitation Service Regulator of Honduras (ERSAPS), have organized complementary training webinars to convene utility staff nationwide to strengthen their legal, technical and administrative processes amidst the pandemic. For technical and operational tasks, the crisis has put the need for remote sensing, supervision, and assessment tools and practices at the forefront of all utilities. In Brazil, the state utilities in Ceará, Sao Paulo, and others have introduced special procedures for the use of equipment and access to the corporate systems of the company.

Connectivity: virtual customer services. In times of social distancing, sector agencies must now provide remote administrative and customer support. Measures range from promoting the use of existing channels and revamping existing communication lines, to the design and introduction of new virtual mechanisms. Ecuador’s EMAPAG introduced new telephone lines strengthening their customer service team, and Uruguay’s National Water Supply and Sanitation Company (OSE) introduced a new digital signature modality for administrative procedures that were previously only accepted in person. Regulators and technical agencies, such as OTASS in Peru, revised their administrative procedures to allow for the advancement of procurement procedures without needing in-person signatures. Moreover, a glance of social media channels of both regulators and utilities in most monitored countries shows that there has been an increase in providing online customer support, for example using the online chat functions.  

Opportunities. However, one cannot ignore the promising collateral impacts of this increased connectivity. The current context opens the door for more sector innovation, fostering of multi-sector partnerships for strategic investment and planning, an acceleration of utilities’ digital and automated transformation, and more proactive engagement with stakeholders. Moreover, through social media, sector agencies are conveying public health recommendations in a rapid and informative manner, thus strengthening public opinion on the importance of water for livelihoods and post-COVID recovery. This is putting those without access to services under the spotlight, and helping citizens acknowledge the magnitude of the needs of their vulnerable neighbors. WSS utility workers—the unseen frontline responders in times of crisis—are also gaining recognition for their dedication despite a global pandemic that has called for unprecedented response measures. The nurturing relationship, or connectivity, between the WSS sector and its citizens is perhaps holding the greatest prospect of all. 


[i] The WSS Responses to COVID-19 dashboard provides an overview of sector measures introduced in LAC and their evolution in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, contributing towards regional sector knowledge creation. The dashboard is a reference tool to be consulted by World Bank staff as well as external development partners, academics and others when researching country responses regarding WSS to COVID-19. The materials intend to serve as reference material ONLY and should not be relied on as a substitute for the original source. The dashboard is updated periodically.



Berenice Flores Arias Uijtewaal

Water Supply and Sanitation Specialist

Andrea Juárez-Lucas

Water Resources Management Specialist

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