We are told to rigorously wash our hands multiple times per day, which is fine in countries with a high level of clean water and sanitation, but in many parts of the developing world, it is a hard task. Covid-19 has done more to demonstrate the importance of hand hygiene than perhaps any other event in recent history, as it can truly save lives by stopping the spread of pathogens, infections, and the coronavirus.
Sadly, billions of people lack access to water sanitation, but can the highlighted importance of clean water help us to enter the ‘Brave New World’ post-Covid-19 with better infrastructure? That is just one part of what we will look at in this article.
What is the UN doing to support SDG6 during the pandemic?
- They have highlighted that water, sanitation, and hygiene must be provided to the 2.2 billion people living in the most vulnerable conditions, calling on governments to stop cutting the water of people who can’t pay their water bills and to make water a right not a luxury.
- The UN is working hard to facilitate access to running water and handwashing in ‘informal settlements’, such as slums and refugee camps.
- UNICEF is trying to fundraise support for young boys and girls with water and sanitation difficulties such as shortages or pollution, especially in remote areas, or to those who may be homeless.
- As we mentioned in SDG5, there is a global increase in WASH services, (water, sanitation, and hygiene) led by the International Organization for Migration. They are working to stop the spread of the disease in health facilities by increasing sanitation in at-risk and fragile countries.
What do we know about the existing global water and sanitation crisis?
These facts are on a global scale:
- 1 in 4 health care facilities are not equipped with basic water services
- Around 892 million people practice open defecation, creating a serious hygiene risk to others
- Females of all ages are responsible for water collection in around 80% of families where there is no direct water supply
- 6 out of 10 people lack access to safely managed sanitation facilities
- 3 out of 10 people do not have access to safe drinking water
- Water scarcity affects over 40% of the human population, with this percentage rising each year
- 1 in 3 people on Earth lack access to toilets or latrines
- Diarrheal diseases borne from sanitation issues kill almost 1,000 children per day
SDG6: how do the sub-goals relate to covid?
Below, we will explore some of the sub-goals connected to SDG6, passing some comments on how they are affected by Covid-19 or how they can progress in spite of it.
6.1 By 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all
Drinking water is pivotal, as is having clean water to wash your hands with during a pandemic. So, what about areas that don’t have enough water to meet their basic needs? In Asia, handwashing and drinking water statistics often correlate with a country’s natural water resources. In Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Indonesia, water is in great supply and so handwashing with soap is practiced by 90% of the population. In arid Afghanistan, mountainous Nepal, and infrastructure-lacking Bangladesh, that same statistic drops well below 50%.
Governments around the world are starting to commit to solving the water scarcity problem, in part inspired by the events that have transpired during the pandemic. Funding, addressing root problems, and involving communities in the process is key, as is introducing improved water sources and reducing water-fetching times. Some experts are calling on governments and urban planners to embrace rainwater and wastewater reuse in order to help water-scarce communities.
6.2 By 2030, achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations
Better sanitation is key to flattening the curve and reducing the spread of Covid-19, but it will require governments to provide toilets to their citizens. It has been reported by the WHO that the Covid-19 virus is present and can be transmitted through faeces.
Introducing toilets is incredibly difficult when sewage doesn’t previously exist in a community, and there are immediate needs for the safe collection, transportation, treatment, and disposal of waste.
6.3 By 2030, improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimizing release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally
This is one sub-goal where the lockdown was very helpful to researchers, who were able to study the effects of reduced industrialisation on water bodies. Unsurprisingly, they found that with people locked down and factories and businesses closed, the rivers and lakes started to get cleaner. Sadly, the results were just temporary.
To solve this goal moving forward, three things MUST happen:
- Effluent treatment plants built in areas with high water pollution rates
- Sewage treatment plants in highly populous river regions
- Decentralised wastewater management to turn wastewater into a sustainable resource for developing communities
6.6 By 2020, protect and restore water-related ecosystems, including mountains, forests, wetlands, rivers, aquifers and lakes
Moving forward, this is undeniable, right? If water scarcity is one of the root causes of water problems, then protecting the water sources is vital. The problem remains that developing infrastructure during a pandemic, when resources are being allocated elsewhere, especially in poorer countries, is beyond challenging.
Perhaps this UN Water directory page will signal just how many projects and considerations there are in this field.
SDG6 is one of the goals that could realistically be solved or achieved within this generation. Water already exists in abundance on this planet, we just have to innovate some sustainable methods of increasing coverage, quality, and post-use sanitation. To figure this out, we need political commitment, especially from developing countries where most people are at risk. We need more technical support and guidance, as well as the financial support to realise projects. Policymakers have begun to see the positive domino effect of improving water supplies for their poorer communities, and at the same time encourage hygiene and water conservation among the populus who already have a steady water supply.
Allow us to finish with this quote:
“A recovery from the COVID-19 crisis must not take us back to where we were before the pandemic. It is an opportunity to build more sustainable and inclusive societies — a more resilient and prosperous world.” UN Secretary-General António Guterres.