COVID-19 Heightens Water Problems Around The World

By Cecilia Tortajada, Asit Biswas 17 July, 2020

Access to water is critical during a pandemic. We need to rethink global access, says global water gurus Biswas & Tortajada

With the current global disruption we need to rethink how to achieve the SDG goals; for water, acknowledge that access is a global issue; 2mn people in the US don't have access to piped water
Beyond critical access during a pandemic, the lockdowns & rising unemployment has meant that spending on safe water & even paying water utility bills is a problem for millions worldwide
With recommended frequent handwashing, hygiene etc., political leaders will now have to give increasing attention to water; unfortunately enlightened leadership is absent in nearly all countries

The article was first published in The Conversation in June 2020. Click here to view. 


COVID-19 will unquestionably delay achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the latest global attempt to improve the quality of life of billions of people around the world by 2030.

Increasing access to clean water and sanitation are among the 17 SDGs. During normal times, and even more during the present pandemic, access to clean water and proper sanitation is essential.

Stop looking at access to safe water as the problem of developing countries alone

But we must now rethink how we achieve the goals laid out in the SDGS. First, we should stop looking at access to safe water as the problem of developing countries alone – it is a global problem that worsens under extreme conditions like the current pandemic.

How COVID-19 heightens water problems

During the current pandemic, a lack of clean water for drinking and proper hygienic practices has become a major concern for cities in the developing world, especially in slums, peri-urban areas and refugee camps.

Countries in Africa and South Asia, with some 85% of the world’s people live, face particularly daunting challenges to access clean, drinkable water.

But the problem is not confined to these areas. Developed countries are increasingly facing similar concerns. After catastrophic experiences with water utilities in Flint in 2014 in the US, and in 2000 in Walkerton, Canada, which seriously affected the health of a large number of people, millions in these two countries are now using point of treatment systems in their homes to further purify city water. They are also buying bottled water because they perceive it to be cleaner and safer. In overwhelming percentage of cases of people in developed countries, from Japan and Singapore to western Europe and the US, are doing this out of choice and not because they have to.

Lockdown & growing unemployment means spending extra on safe water & even paying water utility bills is a problem

But the financial impact of lockdown and growing unemployment means that spending extra on safe water has become a problem for many households – and millions are struggling to pay their utilities bills, including for water.

In the US, some 57 million people in several states have been allowed to continue receiving water from their utilities even if they cannot currently pay for it. But there are still many poor and disadvantaged people who did not have access to water services before the pandemic, and still do not have them.

In the European Union (EU), most member states need to increase their annual water supply and sanitation expenditure by more than 25% to comply with EU Drinking Water and Urban Wastewater Treatment Directives. This will also contribute towards reaching the SDGs. But in these uncertain times, the EU will have to rethink how best to make use of scarce financial resources to achieve their goals.

At least 2mn people do not have access to piped water in the US

The pandemic has further worsened the living conditions and health of millions of people in both developed and developing countries, and it is unclear when this situation might improve. Even in the world’s richest country, USA, at least two million people still do not have access to piped water.

The need for leadership

From the late 1970s, the United Nations have advocated for improved source of water. But this term does not mean clean and safe water, even though UN organisations use these terms interchangeably.

Political leaders will now have to give increasing attention not only to access to water but also to its quality…

COVID-19 has focused global attention to clean water for frequent handwashing, drinking and personal hygiene. Political leaders will now have to give increasing attention not only to access to water but also to its quality. It will be an even more daunting task, in both developed and developing countries, to regain the trust of their people that water they are receiving is safe to drink and for personal hygiene because of extensive past mismanagement in most countries of the world.

The world needs leadership, long-term sustainable policies, robust legal and regulatory systems, strong institutions, and services that are reliable and provided irrespective of the circumstances. For example, Singapore ensured all these conditions were fulfilled from 1965 onwards. As a result, its water management is now one of the best in the world.

…unfortunately enlightened political leadership is absent in nearly all countries

The absence of enlightened political leadership in nearly all countries of the world, both developed and developing, will exacerbate the problem in the coming decades because of increasing uncertainties due to both expected events like climate change and unexpected ones like COVID-19.

Water affects all aspects of life, economic activity and ecosystems. As the British-American poet, W.H. Auden wrote: “Thousands have lived without love but none without water.”


Further Reading

  • How To Make Water Issues Matter To World Leaders – Except Singapore, no other leaders of any other country have shown sustained interest in water in the last 50 years. How can this paradigm shift? Global water gurus Biswas & Tortajada explore
  • Tackling Asia’s Water Challenges – Following China Water Risk’s new report highlighting Asia’s water challenges and the Hindu Kush Himalaya region, Cecilia Tortajada from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy calls for action from the investment community
  • Water Efficiency Policy: A Technological High-Water Mark? – From biomimicry to data analytics, Singapore is developing new technology to produce clean water without sinking the environment. Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy’s Tommy Kevin Lee and Cecilia Tortajada expand
  • India’s Water Policies: Just Feel Good Documents? – Chetan Pandit, former #2 of India’s Central Water Commission, joins Professor Asit Biswas from the National University of Singapore in a “no holds barred” review on what’s gone wrong with India’s water management in the past 31 years
  • Managing the World’s Liquid Asset – Water – Savvy investors now recognise water as a business risk yet there is still no agreed global standard & framework for sustainability reporting. Biswas, Tortajada & Chandler on why corporates & governments must do more to change the culture & mindset over the use of water

More on Latest

  • The Coronavirus Climate Profiteers & The Climate Heroes – Which companies and industries are exploiting COVID-19 and which are doubling down on green efforts? Mighty Earth’s CEO Glenn Hurowitz calls them out and calls for a new, better system to be built
  • Fashion Frolicking In Oil – Fashion is practically frolicking in oil as CWR’s Dawn McGregor points out. 2.5% of global oil produced is used by the fashion industry. See why this is and how fashion accounts for 35% of ocean microplastic
  • It Happened – Central Banks And Water Risks – Half a dozen new reports by the NGFS means that CWR has achieved a key milestone in embedding water risks in finance. Debra Tan and Dharisha Mirando expand on these game-changing moves by the central banks. The credit evolution has started
  • Regulators Have A Role To Play In Tackling The Global Water Crisis – Climate change creates systemic risks to financial systems. With USD316bn of losses from disasters in 2018-19, Ceres’ Robin Miller on urgent actions regulators can take to ensure stability and investors that have made a start on water risks
  • Pathway For Hong Kong To Net Zero By 2050 – Hong Kong needs a new plan to decarbonise by 2050 as it only has targets for 2030. ADMCF’s CEO Lisa Genasci shares key findings from a report that shows us how to achieve net-zero and monetised HKD460bn in benefits

Cecilia Tortajada
Author: Cecilia Tortajada
Dr Tortajada is a leading international authority on urban water and wastewater management. She currently focuses on ensuring water future in terms of food, energy and environmental governance and ensuring water security through coordinated policies, which include water and natural resources management and water reuse. Dr Tortajada has advised major international institutions like FAO, UNDP, JICA, ADB, OECD, IDRC and GIZ, and has worked in numerous countries in Africa, Asia, North and South America plus Europe. She received the prestigious Crystal Drop Award and has been the only woman President of the International Water Resources Association during its 50 years of history. Dr Tortajada is currently a member of the OECD Initiative on Water Governance and juror for the Finnish Academy’s Euro One Million Millennium Technology Prize. She is also the Editor‐in‐Chief of the International Journal of Water Resources Development; Associate Editor of Water International; member of the Editorial Boards of the International Journal of Water Governance, Journal of Natural Resources Policy Research, and Urban, Planning and Transport Research Journal; as well as Editor of book series with Routledge, Springer and Oxford University Press. Cecilia has also authored and edited over 40 books by major international publishers. Her work has been translated into Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, French, German, Hindi, Japanese, Mongolian and Spanish.
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Asit Biswas
Author: Asit Biswas
Professor Biswas is a leading authority on water, environment and development-related issues. He has been an advisor and confidant to Presidents, PMs and Ministers of 19 countries, six Heads of UN Agencies, two Secretary-Generals of OECD and several heads of IGOs and MNCs. He was also Director of Canada’s Department of the Environment. Asit co-founded the International Water Resources Association (IWRA), the World Water Council and the Third World Centre for Water Management and currently sits on the International Advisory Board of Pictet Asset Management and the Indian Institute of Technology and is Strategic Advisor to Singapore International Water Week as well as Distinguished Visiting Professor to the University of Glasgow. Asit is a distinguished Academician. With 950+ publications, his h-index of 44 makes him an ‘outstanding scientist’ and a Research Gate score of 41.89, puts him into the top 2.5% of all scientists across all disciplines globally. He founded the International Journal of Water Resources Development and is the author or editor of 88 books; his works have been translated into 41 languages. He has also seven Honorary Doctorates plus numerous prestigious global environment and water awards, ranging from the Aragon Environment Prize to the Stockholm Water Prize; Canada even named him Person of the Year in 1996.
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