Advancing WASH Initiatives in Light of COVID-19

In Water Crisis by Pallavi Bharadwaj1 Comment

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When it came to Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH), growing up in India, I had two extreme case scenarios in my two sets of grandparents' homes.

My paternal grandmother never turned the tap off, while doing the dishes. She simply let the water flow, even if it was just a little trickle (according to her).

This used to irk my mother, and she complained under her breath, urging my grandmother to turn the tap off. On the other hand, in my maternal grandparents' home, I never saw them use soap to wash their hands, even after using the toilet!

My maternal grandparents always used ashes from the burned firewood or mud to clean their hands. This could be very confusing to a toddler's eyes and mind. My own adoptee grandparent did not condone either practice. He inculcated the habit of washing hands with soap and keeping the tap off while rubbing the soap, in me. 

Why am I going down the memory lane now? That little practice from my childhood, speaks volumes about the need of behavioral change in both developed countries (to save water while washing hands, brushing teeth, shaving, doing dishes and so on), and developing countries to use soap and not traditional items (sand, ash, and mud) to wash their hands, in the time of COVID-19 and beyond. 

Our world today


Safe WASH practices are vital for human well-being. However, 1 in 3 people (approximately 2.2 billion) still lack safe drinking water, 4.2 billion do not have access to safely managed sanitation services, and 829,000 people die annually from unsafe water, and related sanitation and hygiene around the world.

In India, where only a fifth of all households out of 1.3 billion have piped running water, frequent handwashing is a challenge. Major health organizations and experts advise washing hands more frequently – for at least 20 seconds – to prevent outbreaks.

Uganda / Ninno JackJr / Unsplash

Refugee Camp Arua / Ninno JackJr / Unsplash

However, expecting communities, living in water scarce areas, to wash their hands 8-10 times a day is simply unreasonable. This is a common scenario for most in sub-Saharan African countries too, where 75 percent of people living in rural areas lack adequate facilities for handwashing.

Clean running water and soap are in such short supply that only 15 percent of sub-Saharan Africans had access to basic hand-washing facilities in 2015, according to the United Nations. In Liberia, it is even worse, 97 percent of homes did not have clean water and soap in 2017, the U.N. says.


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Pertinent solutions to speed up WASH access


1. Bringing nature wherever possible in our daily lives:

Sponge cities and now biophilic cities, cities that aspire to be more rich in nature within their unique and diverse environments and where the planning and design abundantly incorporate the natural world into the daily lives of residents, are the concepts that we need more of. Richmond, VA is the latest biophilic city, following Singapore as one of the international ones.

2. Financing the gap:

As the global WASH community races towards 2030 to meet SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation for All), new sources of finance and better use of existing ones for WASH projects are essential. A range of financing approaches can help address the diverse needs between and within countries, as well as incorporate measures that bolster resilience as illustrated in this article from New Security Beat, Wilson Center's blog.

3. Providing WASH collectively to the communities in need:

Separating water supply from sanitation services will push us back many years. Equitable distribution of water and sanitation services for communities, agriculture and industries shall help combat COVID-19 crisis and prepare for future events.

4. Affordable WASH for all:

"For many communities, especially in subsistence economies (farming and related occupation), affordable might even mean 'free'", according to Mr. Leo Heller, Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation speaking during one of recent RWSN's webinars. "This affordability is especially imperative now, in the time of COVID-19, so that these communities can spend their limited resources to buy basics such as food, medicines and soap."



Beyond the Clean Water Act


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A combination of all the above along with global consensus on speeding the delivery of much needed resources shall go a long way in creating resilient communities.

At a United Nations conference on primary health care back in 1978, the 'Health for All initiative' was launched. One of its goals was to tackle the gross inequality in global health, particularly between developed and developing nations.

Enthusiastically welcomed by African governments, it never took off. The rise of free market capitalism in the 1980s, several experts say, changed the notion that states should be responsible for providing health care to every citizen.

As we head into 50 years of Earth Day celebration on April 22 in 2020, we should remember that we were able to establish the clean water act, the clean air act, and strengthen the EPA in the US. Many countries around the globe followed suit, and the UN adopted April 22 as the Earth Day in 1970.

If we were able to do it 50 years ago, we are more than capable to do it again now to make healthcare a basic human essential good and service.



Thank you for taking the time to read our article on advancing WASH initiatives. We'd love to hear your feedback in the comments section below.

This article is a combination of articles that originally appeared on Engineering for Change and World Water Reserve. It has been modified for the readers of this blog. To read the original articles, please click here.

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Pallavi is Engineering for Change's WASH Correspondent. When not writing for E4C, Pallavi is a program, grants and project manager, consultant, and global development professional living in New York City. Her interests range from environmental causes to education, and her personal pursuits include entrepreneurship, food, travel and yoga.
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