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Invest in water and provide a buffer against future pandemics

Global water shortages have long hampered growth and development, and climate change has exacerbated the problem. Will the coronavirus pandemic be a turning point? Stuart Watkins reports.

Indian children with facemasks wash their hands © NOAH SEELAM/AFP via Getty Images
Wash your hands – easier said than done for many © Getty

It is hard to see into the future at the best of times, but the coronavirus has made our crystal balls murkier than usual. Lockdowns have throttled large parts of the global economy. Governments are beginning to take their hands off our throats, but there’s no way of knowing whether the casualties will ever get up and walk again, as Edward Chancellor put it in a recent interview with MoneyWeek. Will businesses that have temporarily shut up shop open again and resume business as normal, or will they find their customers and workers gone, their supply chains broken? Will the economy roar back to health in a V-shaped recovery? If not, perhaps a U-shaped one? Can anyone yet be very sure that it won’t be an L, at least for the foreseeable future? We just don’t know. Some things, however, do seem relatively clear. One is that the coronavirus crisis has accelerated trends that were already apparent before the outbreak. Another is that governments can usually be relied upon to fight the last war vigorously. Both may give a lift to companies that seek to alleviate water shortages.

Get the dull stuff right  

Preventing pandemics is relatively cheap, simple and cost-effective, certainly when compared with the costs of letting them rip, as we are seeing now only too clearly. As Max King recently pointed out in these pages, when the World Health Organisation was required to trim $1bn from its budget in 2008, it dissolved its pandemic response department, slowing its ability to respond to Ebola. An analysis by Dr Jonathan Quick, who wrote a book on the threat of epidemics in 2018, suggested that the equivalent of just $1 for every person on the planet per year ($7.5bn annually) would save lives and pay for itself. Developed-world governments, now shovelling hundreds of billions into an economic black hole with no end to the task yet in sight, will surely reconsider their attitudes to what it’s worth spending to prevent future known unknowns.

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As has been well understood for more than a century, when it comes to public health, dull efficiency, in the provision of effective sewerage infrastructure for example, can be far more effective and important than the excitement of flashy new technologies or praying for vaccines and therapies that may never arrive. In the case of the coronavirus crisis, we all got used early on to the advice that we should wash our hands more regularly and it seems increasingly likely that a Sweden-style route back to normal life involving relying on people to take modest but sensible precautions will prevail globally, whether or not the fancy new tracing apps or tests or therapies ever amount to much or reach enough people to make a difference. Yet something as simple as regular hand-washing is far easier said than done for those who do not have ready access to water. Very many people around the world do not. And as this crisis has shown only too clearly, that is not only a cause of real suffering for them, it is very much our problem too. 

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Health authorities advise washing hands frequently for at least 20 seconds to prevent the spread of coronavirus, yet three billion people, 40% of the world’s population, lack access to basic hand-washing facilities in their homes, as the World Resources Institute (WRI) points out. Nearly a billion people have only partial access or experience regular outages even when they do have piped water, making frequent hand washing difficult or impossible. Charitable organisations have ramped up assistance to provide short-term solutions to this problem to help prevent the spread of coronavirus, but securing public health and controlling Covid-19 in the future will require governments to address the root problems of water scarcity. The UN reckons that the capital investments required to meet its global sustainability goals for water supply, sanitation and hygiene services in low-income countries are at least three times current expenditure levels. Such investments, along with improved management of existing resources, including the natural ecosystems that ultimately provide the water, not only create a sound foundation for preventing the spread of Covid-19 and other diseases, but also boost local economies. WRI’s research suggests that the UN’s goals could be achieved by 2030 by spending as little as 1% of global GDP. 

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Richard Connor, editor-in-chief of the UN World Water Development report, told The Observer earlier this year that water investments are often overlooked because the economic benefits are not emphasised. Water scarcity is perceived as being mainly a social or environmental issue, rather than an economic one. “Yet the economic costs of an outbreak [such as Covid-19] are enormous, both in terms of national economies and stockmarkets, as well as in terms of household revenue – when people cannot work because of sickness or lockdowns. Realising the economic importance of water and sanitation should provide an additional catalyst for greater investment,” he said. Connor cites evidence that returns on investment in water and sanitation can be high, with a global benefit-cost ratio of 5.5 for improved sanitation and 2.0 for improved drinking water, when broader macroeconomic benefits are taken into account. 

The coronavirus crisis is throwing new light on these issues, but the underlying causes of the problem have been manifest for many years.

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