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With contributions from: Alfonso Alvestegui, Andrea Juarez, Berenice Flores, Carlo Amadei, Christian Borja, Diego Rodriguez, Iris Marmanillo, Jean Martin Brault, Juliana Garrido, Marco Agüero, Maria Catalina Ramirez, Miguel Vargas-Ramirez, Viviane Virgolim Zamian
“Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly”: this advice is one of the basic protective measures against the coronavirus (COVID-19). But doing it requires access to clean and reliable water. And that can be a challenge in Latin America and the Caribbean, where 25 percent of the population still do not have reliable access to a safely managed water supply. To help fight the pandemic, governments in the region are setting up emergency measures to provide safe water to their citizens. These measures focus on three main areas.
- Ensuring access, continuity, and quality
Handwashing requires access to a water source, service continuity, and secure water quality. To respond to the COVID-19 emergency, governments in the region are working to improve all three aspects. The first includes reaching out to underserved populations. Governments are setting up emergency provisions to secure their water supply, including by distributing water through tankers (in Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Mexico, Peru, Paraguay), by providing bottled water or compact water treatment plants for hospitals (in Mexico) or by giving top priority to hospitals and institutions serving the most vulnerable communities (in Jamaica). Colombia is going a step further by ensuring 6 cubic meters to each person, enabling the National Participation System to finance the water supply through alternative systems, and reconnecting water service to about 1 million people in households that have not made payments. In Costa Rica, the Acueducto y Alcantarillado Company has already issued an order to ensure access and continuity of services to those that were disconnected for the lack of payment, so households continue practicing handwashing and hygiene.
Utilities such as Brazil’s Companhia de Saneamento de Minas Gerais (COPASA) are assuring continuous water supply in regions that previously used rationing due to drought conditions. Chile’s Grupo Aguas Andinas and Uruguay’s Obras Sanitarias del Estado (OSE), on the other hand, are activating drought protocols, which include demand management and water delivery through trucks. In dry areas of Colombia, water allocation for irrigation has been redirected to the human water supply.
To secure service continuity, measures taken in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Honduras, Jamaica, Paraguay, and Peru include suspension of service disconnections due to the lack of payment. Brazil is also assuring water supply to defaulter clients through social tariffs and by negotiating their debt.
To secure water quantity and quality, utilities in Bolivia, Colombia, and Mexico, for example, have been mandated to strengthen their quality monitoring. In some places in Colombia, Ecuador, and Mexico, residual chlorine has been adjusted in the distribution system. The water supply company for Guatemala City – EMPAGUA – has just habilitated an additional supply of 220 liters/second to improve service continuity in some areas of the city and is being proactive in raising awareness through communication campaigns to rationalize the use of water. In Jamaica, the National Water Commission is encouraging the public to use effective water conservation methods, raising awareness on the use of water and encouraging recycling and reuse of water when appropriate.
- Direct support to cover service fees
To minimize the economic impact of COVID-19 on households, governments have adopted several measures that provide direct support to water service users. Argentina will publish a Need and Urgency decree, forbidding the suspension of basic public services to households that have stopped payment. El Salvador has adopted a measure beginning in mid-March in which any family directly affected by COVID-19 will not pay a water bill for three months. In Bolivia, the government will cover 50 percent of the water bills for the upcoming three months (April to June) for families whose consumption is below US$17 per month. In Paraguay, the main provider in Asuncion and large urban settlements is waiving late payment charges. And in Colombia and Honduras, tariff adjustments will be suspended during the emergency period.
In Brazil, Sao Paulo state suspended water tariffs for a few hundred of low-income families and put on hold the debt of individuals and companies for 90 days from April 1. Similar actions have been taken by the state of Ceará. In the state of Minas Gerais, COPASA, the state water utility company, has reconnected services of those defaulter customers under social tariff after negotiating their debts. Also, the utility Aguas de Teresina in the state of Piaui and COPASA have expanded payment alternatives for users through new platforms and online applications.
- Support to water utilities
Some governments are also providing urgent support to water utilities. For example, Colombia suspended taxes on potabilization products to allow for necessary water treatment operations. Paraguay, through the water utility ESSAP (Empresa de Servicios Sanitarios del Paraguay), is donating sodium hypochlorite to hospitals so it can be used to disinfect health facilities. In Mexico, the government is supporting the procurement of chlorine to achieve safe water standards.
In most states of Brazil, as well as Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Honduras and Uruguay, the focus has been on protecting the employees of utilities by promoting home-based work, personnel rotation, and closing offices. In Brazil’s Pernambuco and São Paulo states, in cases where meter reading requires a site visit or client contact, the practice will be suspended and replaced by a calculation of the average consumption of water over the course of the last 6 months. In Paraguay, employees required to be present at facilities are being monitored for their temperature, and new handwashing facilities are being installed.
Safely managed water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services are essential to protecting human health during the pandemic and other infectious disease outbreaks. We are happy to see that governments in Latin America and the Caribbean are moving quickly with emergency responses. These measures illustrate what can be done on the ground and offer lessons to regions around the world.
Learn more about WASH (Water, Sanitation & Hygiene) and COVID-19