World Health Organization says hand-washing – in addition to social distancing -- is the easiest and most effective way of preventing transmission of the new virus. But do our poor have adequate access to clean water for washing?
Around 1.9 billion people worldwide use non-potable, contaminated water. What does that do to our disease prevention strategies and measures?
New Delhi, March 21-22, 2020: “On the occasion of World Water Day, and at a time when the entire world is fighting with its backs to the wall against the coronavirus pandemic, we believe it is appropriate to ask a very pertinent question. Do we have enough access to clean and safe water, considering the fact that hand-washing has emerged as one of the most effective ways of controlling the spread of this virus?” says Sunita Narain, director general, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), hand-washing – in addition to social distancing -- is the easiest and most effective way of preventing transmission of the new virus. In India, a campaign has been kick-started on the subject, with celebrities roped in to increase awareness on washing hands.
But there remain genuine concerns that nations in the Global South – consisting of low and middle-income countries in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia, including India – may not have adequate access to clean water necessary for hand-washing.
A 2014 WHO report – Preventing Diarrhoea through Better Water, Sanitation and Hygiene -- says around 1.9 billion people in the world use non-potable or faecally-contaminated water for drinking, cleaning and other related activities. As per the Indian government’s own submission in the Lok Sabha in 2018, diarrhoea is the leading killer among water-borne diseases, causing about 60 per cent of all deaths.
Hand-washing using clean water and soap, therefore, is a critical preventive measure in the current scenario. CSE has analysed what this means in the Indian context. According to Suresh Rohilla, senior director-water and wastewater management, CSE: “Going by the WHO’s prescribed measures, to get a germs-free hand, a person takes 30-40 seconds for one proper hand-wash, using approximately 4 litres of water with the tap flowing consistently (and 2 litres when the tap closed while scrubbing and rinsing). Assuming each person in these days of COVID-19 needs to wash hands at least 10 times in a day, a family of five would need 100-200 litres every day just for hand-washing!”
And, even assuming that one does not leave the tap running when one rubs hands with soap, the water consumption will be high, but necessary.
Adds Narain: “There is another concern – the increased use of water will naturally lead to generation of more wastewater. Keeping in mind the fact that 85-90 per cent of all water used in a household gets discharged as wastewater, the more water we use, the more sewage we discharge. This, when we know that the bulk of wastewater is not intercepted, nor treated or cleaned. This means that we are adding to the pollution challenge of our waterbodies. It will mean higher cost to clean this water for drinking and it will mean more dirty water, which in turn, means more bad health.”
But this is why we must make the connection on this World Water Day – access to clean water is our fundamental right, says Narain. The good news is that water is a replenishable resource. We need to harvest every drop of water, recharge groundwater, protect waterbodies and then also ensure that every litre of wastewater is treated and cleaned. “We must ensure that we return water – and not waste -- to our rivers,” says Narain.
According to Narain, this decade is our make-or-break decade – on one hand, we will see the revenge of nature as climate change impacts get aggravated, which means more variable rainfall and more droughts and floods. On the other hand, we will have more water scarcity and more pollution if we do not get our water management right, which in turn will add to economic distress and livelihood insecurity.
“But we can get it right. This is what we must remember,” says Narain. “We need to be water wise; changing diets so that crops we eat are water-prudent; and invest in water efficiency in homes, factories and fields. Today, we know what to do and now we must make the management of this resource our single biggest obsession.”
Narain points out that the coronavirus pandemic teaches us that we are as weak as the weakest link in the chain – the contagion needs us to ensure that everybody has access to public health so that nobody is left out and nobody can be the carrier of the virus. “Providing access to clean water is the biggest preventive health measure we can take – and this is why, on World Water Day 2020, we must make this connection. For all our sakes,” she adds.
Down To Earth magazine releases comprehensive information package to mark World Water Day
Down To Earth’s March 16-31 issue brings you a special coverage on the subject of water, and how India suffers from mismanagement – and not scarcity – of the resource. Coverage will include exposes on where the Jal Shakti Abhiyan is failing, and how a changing climate is disrupting the nation’s water cycle. Watch out for it on our website, www.cseindia.org.
For details and help with interviews, content, etc, please get in touch with Sukanya Nair of The CSE Media Resource Centre, firstname.lastname@example.org, 88168 18864.