Water in a post-COVID world: The challenges and opportunities ahead
As we reach what is hopefully the latter stages of the coronavirus pandemic, the global water industry stands at a crossroads.
It has been stress-tested by a “black swan” event that no one could have ever anticipated. It has caused primary and secondary effects that we’re only starting to understand.
But one thing is clear: This is an unprecedented time to re-think our global and local approach to water. We face a once in a lifetime opportunity to redesign and reinforce it to ensure that it can equitably and reliability meet the needs of all the constituencies who rely on water for life, health and safety.
As we’ve seen during the last six months, clean water is vital to preventing the spread of COVID-19 and other viruses. Improving water, sanitation and hygiene can prevent at least 9.1% of global disease and 6.3% of all deaths, according to Safer Water, Better Health, a report released by the World Health Organization (WHO) before the pandemic.
Multiple factors that threaten global water security need to be discussed and planned for, including drought, worsening storms, pollution and other growing challenges. Natural disasters such as drought, extreme weather and flooding often displace people to refugee camps or shelters that have inadequate water and sanitation. These temporary facilities, where many people are forced to live in close quarters, can easily become new hotbeds for coronavirus and other pathogens.
Aging water infrastructure threatens the health and well-being of some of the poorest communities in the U.S. Flint, Michigan was only the first example. There will be more. It’s no longer a question of if, but when. We can no longer afford to treat the water distribution and sanitation infrastructure beneath our feet as an “invisible” problem.
During the pandemic, the agriculture industry was disrupted. In some areas, lockdowns and illnesses prevented workers from planting and harvesting crops, causing food shocks felt around the world. As farms return to normal production and try to produce more food to counter supply deficits, they will need more water for irrigation.
From industrial manufacturing and food processing to pharmaceuticals and textile production, every industry needs to reassess its water use. It’s time to look for opportunities to replace water-intensive processes with innovative alternatives.
In addition, we have an unprecedented opportunity to rethink “waste streams” as “resource streams.” According to the International Water Management Institute, 80% of the world’s wastewater is released back into the environment untreated. That percentage is truly shocking.
Treating a bigger percentage of wastewater not only helps us increase the supply of freshwater and protects our communities and ecosystems from biological hazards, but it may also provide us with nutrient resources that many municipalities haven’t even explored. This includes innovative new uses for recycled but non-potable water.
I’m very fond of the International Water Management Institute’s (IMWI) perspective on these monumental challenges. They believe that systems thinking is our best bet to solve them:
“Water connects health, food systems, climate change, nature, energy and finance. The fabric of water security is created by weaving together effective governance, knowledge and skills, connectivity across systems, and investment in and application of infrastructure, technologies and services from ecosystems,” declare Claudia Sadoff, Director General, and Mark Smith, Deputy Director General, of IMWI.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is stressing all of these, forcing a reckoning with many underlying problems in the process. But it is also an opportunity to expand our understanding of how these systems work and how we can build back better in a post-pandemic world,” they conclude.