Achieving human rights to water and sanitation amid COVID-19

Amid a pandemic, huge sections of the global population are still being left behind in their access to water, sanitation and hygiene.

Haiti coronavirus
People wait to get water from a communal tap, during an outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Port-au-Prince, Haiti [Jeanty Junior Augustin/Reuters]

Ten years after the United Nations recognised water and sanitation as human rights, the world finds itself reeling from the devastating toll of COVID-19, a virus against which hand-washing and hygiene are the first lines of defence.

One of the most important lessons we learned from this pandemic is that we are only as healthy as the most vulnerable members of our societies, and today, huge sections of the global population are still being left behind in their access to water, sanitation and hygiene.

This World Health Day, our interconnectivity makes it more imperative than ever before that we ensure everyone on the planet has access to water and sanitation – for a safer and healthier future for all.

Before the pandemic hit, 40 percent of the world’s population already lacked access to basic hand-washing facilities at home, and children at almost half of the world’s schools did not have water and soap. While many governments have increased the provision of public hand-washing stations during the pandemic, the economic fallout of COVID-19 has only exacerbated what was already an urgent need in homes, schools, and healthcare facilities all over the world. In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic may contribute to the first increase in global poverty in more than 20 years, and by 2021, an additional 150 million people could be pushed into extreme poverty.

One in four healthcare facilities around the world lacks basic water services, one in 10 has no sanitation service, and one in three lacks hand hygiene facilities at points of care. Data has shown that even where there are adequate WASH facilities, front-line healthcare workers have been 12 times more likely to test positive for COVID-19 compared with individuals in the general community.

Insufficient access to water and sanitation not only risks millions of lives, especially those of women and children, but also affects many other development goals including gender equality, climate resilience, peace, and education.

In fact, most – if not all – of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) depend in some way upon people having access to sufficient and safe water and sanitation. If we factor in additional stressors like climate change, drought and the impending financial crisis, the situation looks even worse.

Lack of access to water and sanitation does not exist in isolation. It is part of a web of systemic challenges and inequalities, intensified by a lack of political will and chronic under- and misdirected investment in the sector. Even before the pandemic hit, there was a decrease in donor aid money, and it is now expected to drop further with growing domestic pressure for spending at home.

Germany and Spain have been two of the countries worst hit by COVID-19, yet have maintained their international aid support. Faced with the threat of COVID-19, Germany refocused its international development assistance to holistically address preventive measures to preserve health and reduce risks through the BMZ One Health strategy. Through its Cooperation Fund for Water and Sanitation, Spain has emphasised the need for supply of drinking water and sanitation in vulnerable neighbourhoods or rural areas, promoted hygiene and hand-washing measures, and adapted hygiene and hand-washing campaigns.

And it is not only the donor countries that are stepping up. In Zimbabwe, the government has committed $1.38m to improve access to water, sanitation and hygiene, and in Malawi, the country’s education minister committed part of a $6m fund earmarked for school reopenings to drilling boreholes and procuring soap.

COVID-19 is not the first epidemic we faced and will not be the last. Resilience to future crises depends on actions taken now. So, how do we build towards a more resilient and equitable world in the wake of this crisis?

Building forward from the pandemic is an opportunity to do things better, an opportunity we must seize without delay. Businesses and schools are reinventing the way they work and we believe that the water, sanitation and hygiene sector can also find new ways to build forward better. To be successful, we must strengthen political will at the highest levels in favour of water, sanitation and hygiene; improve multi-stakeholder engagement in countries; and reinforce good governance and finance. Good governance and the realisation of human rights are certainly the right things to do. But they are also catalytic to enable countries to attract more finance, to absorb it, and to invest in sustainable solutions.

The human rights to water and sanitation will be achievable only if governments seize this moment to reduce health risks, strengthen health systems, and prevent future pandemics. We must act now to ensure we step up progress, despite – or even because of – COVID-19, in fully realising these fundamental human rights.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.