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Can COVID-19 Accelerate Urban Water Security?

“Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

— Winston Churchill

Acute stressors, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, act as multipliers for chronic or pre-existing vulnerabilities: water scarcity, limited resilience to extreme weather events due to climate change, and the challenges of servicing rapidly growing informal populations, particularly in urban settings. This multiplier effect may accelerate water insecurity at unprecedented levels.

It is clear that the world’s water crisis worsens the impact of COVID-19. While stemming the tide of this virus 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. At the same time, COVID-19 is an accelerator of global water insecurity. While competition for freshwater resources is greater than ever, the capacity to mobilize new sources and safeguard existing sources is weakened due to worldwide economic slowdowns and decreased revenue streams. For the last twenty years, climate scientists, progressive economists, and international development experts have issued calls for action, for investment, and for changing “business as usual” to avoid the ultimate systems failure: an unlivable world. Decisions made today in the face of COVID-19 will determine the reality of water security and our collective ability to achieve SDG-6 — safe water and sanitation for all — in the coming decades.

Water is life. To grow food, you need water; to drive economies, you need water; to ensure livelihood security, you need water. Yet, the inability to engage in the simple act of handwashing is life-threatening under conditions of a global pandemic. This situation raises the question, what is to be done? COVID-19 has forced decision-making into “crisis response mode”, often raising questions about the veracity of those decisions. Fostering safe, sustainable and accessible water for us all requires immediate action based on solid evidence combined with long-term planning and significant human, financial and technical resource commitment.

At W12+, we’re reflecting on the possibility that COVID-19 can act as an accelerator of positive action toward achieving SDG-6, but this depends on decisions made today. At the household level, short-term responses to COVID-19 are impacting vulnerabilities in significant, new, and unpredictable ways. For example, in South Africa, movement between provinces has been limited by federal government mandates; this legal restraint, with sound theoretical logic, has practical implications that further increase vulnerability. Specifically, informal workers seeking employment are stuck in limbo at quarantine centers between provinces, effectively creating COVID-19 hotspots while also increasing existing household vulnerabilities of food shortages, income loss, and more as remittance flows slow down or stop altogether.

Grassroots organizations and small-scale entrepreneurs such as iMoSyS, a private company in Lilongwe, Malawi, are seeing related complex challenges in the face of COVID-19. Global health recommendations focus on increasing water use for handwashing — a luxury many in the Global South do not have. Households face choices such as whether to use existing amounts of clean water for drinking or handwashing or to have women and girls queue more frequently and for longer amounts of time to fetch more water (increasing the risk of transmission, causing households to spend higher percentages of monthly income on water, and girls to spend less time in school). iMoSyS created an innovative technology to upgrade communal taps, introducing pre-paid smart cards that can be refilled electronically and used as a contactless means of payment at water kiosks. The technology reduces reliance on specific kiosk service hours, limits in-person contacts, and decreases exposure time and risk in long queues. The company has received international recognition for its innovation and has garnered significant interest in replicating the technology across the African continent.

A local water utility in Mombasa, Kenya, saw significant changes in revenue patterns after partnering with international NGO, Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP). Prior to COVID-19, industrial consumers (in particular from the tourism sector) made up a significant amount of the utility’s revenue before the pandemic ground tourism to a halt. For the first time, household consumers, particularly in informal settlements, made up a majority of the utility’s customers, proving that low-income consumers are a viable market opportunity and will, indeed, pay for good quality clean water. However, promising creative initiatives for long-term solutions, such as those promoted by WSUP, are challenged by COVID-19 through, for example, a lack of revenue for utilities coupled with an increased need for water and decreased ability to pay. People need water, and the market responds by putting a premium on water due to increased demand, which raises questions about governance or institutional arrangements that help or hinder balancing market forces with social need.

Water insecurity is not just a phenomenon in the Global South; in California, for example, inability to pay is of paramount concern: approximately 1.6 million households have a combined water debt of $1 billion, while 155,000 households owe more than $1,000 to their water departments. This diminished ability to pay for consumers will directly impact the utilities’ ability to make long-term decisions regarding sustainability, infrastructure improvements, and maintenance as their revenue is dependent on consumers’ ability to pay. This phenomenon is likely to be commonplace throughout the Global North as this crisis continues.

At W12+, we’re invested in better decision making today for resilient urban water futures in the long term. Effective water solutions should be explored through multi-stakeholder perspectives and through different governance angles, including public, private, and civil society. Enabling urban water security is a system, and interventions can happen at any level and at multiple scales. While there are creative solutions to urban water issues across sectors — from innovative finance to nature-based solutions to water reuse — there aren’t easy fixes, and solutions must be nuanced to each reality.

The nexus of urban water issues is of particular importance. As the International Finance Corporation notes, “Prior to COVID-19, the global water sector was impacted by five major trends: (a) global warming, which has led to an increase in extreme floods and droughts, challenging the resilience of water and sanitation systems, (b) increasing number of people living in areas facing water stress (currently 2 billion), which increases supply vulnerabilities, (c) rapid urbanization, which strains existing water resources and ecosystems, (d) the emergence of megacities, which adds the challenge of extending water and sanitation services to about 1 billion people living in informal settlements not served by water grids, (e) aging infrastructure, which has increased pressure to accelerate investments in more advanced markets, following decades of underinvestment.” COVID-19 is expected to slow down investments in the water sector worldwide while increasing the importance of operational reliability in service delivery.

To this end, several questions require answers. What solutions exist in one place that can be adapted and replicated in another place? How can cities work together across geographic, cultural, and sectoral divides to share solutions and avoid “reinventing the wheel”? Clearly, a great deal of energy is being spent in support of a wide variety of interventions but our sense is that too much is reactive, spurred on by the exigencies of the pandemic. We need to step back, take stock and act collectively in focused, coordinated and deliberate ways. In support of this urgent need, over the next few months, we’ll be diving into complex questions about the interactions between COVID-19 and water security and highlighting innovative decisions made today that will lead to long-term urban water security.

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