Utility Insight into the COVID-19 Pandemic
The Hague, Netherlands, 17 April 2020. Worldwide, water and wastewater utilities provide essential services. Regular and thorough hand washing is one of the basic protective measures advised by the World Health Organization (WHO) against COVID-19. But also for any other household activity, safe drinking water and sanitation services are critical. This is of concern of the citizens across the globe. Thus, water utilities provide essential services to all of us to effectively fight the global pandemic.
The main challenges water utilities are facing worldwide relate to maintaining services and the workers’ safety. Managing operations with personnel working from home and protecting operational staff in the field has not been as difficult as it might be for other industries. The automation of the water sector means it provides safe workplace with few workers to operate in exposure to field work and people, while it is well prepared for dealing with hazardous pathogens already. However, impacts on income streams stress the system due to increased water use by households, and decreasing use of water by industry.
Chaired by IWA President, Diane d’Arras, the IWA Online Panel discussion featured utility leaders from India, Dr. Prabhushankar Gunalan, Executive Director of Chennai Metro Water; USA, David Gadis, CEO and President of DC Water, UK, Christopher Loughlin, Pennon Group Chief Executive Officer and Acting Managing Director of South West Water; Italy, Claudio Cosentino, President of ACEA ATo 2 SpA, and China, Dr. Shuangyi Zhang, R&D Engineer at Shanghai National Engineering Research Center of Urban Water Resources.
The leader of the IWA COVID-19 Task Force, Professor Joan B. Rose, reiterated that SARS-COV-2 has not been found in treated effluent. She stated that “The data currently available reports that the difficulty to cultivate the virus in faeces confirms that the virus is inactivated in sewage.” However, she recommends that occupational workers in the water utilities should continue to take normal precautions to avoid being infected with the virus, such as wearing the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
To ensure normal operation together with safety of the staff, David Gadis, from the USA, shared the 3 P’s approach followed by DC Water: people, place and pay. This focuses on hiring the right people to tackle the current situation in a safe workplace and on ensuring that the pay is equitably distributed. David Gadis stated that there was no hesitation in allowing half of DC Water staff, 600 employees, to work from home under the current circumstances and, talking about tools to overcome emergency situations, he stated, “we as leaders need to ensure we have emergency plans and teams in place going forward, also IT plans, communications plans with customers and employees”.
In Italy, at ACEA Ato 2, the Water and Wastewater Utility that serves Rome, guarantees to its customers the same level of service throughout the lockdown. The utility ensures its workers in the field proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for unhindered and safe work. Talking about financial support for the water utilities, Claudio Cosentino stated: “On one side, we expect to work together with the water authority to put in place some national financial support to ensure customers can pay in instalments over the next 18 months so the impact can be as minimal as possible. The other side: we expect that utilities may play an important role in the recover the national economy through increasing their investments plan, in accordance with water authority and government.” Cosentino also mentioned that currently, there are 800 field workers, while 700 staff memberswork from home including call centre, programming and dispatching unit.
In China, the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the communication between utilities. Dr. Shuangyi Zhang stated: “the utilities now have a closer relationship as compared to before. We now share information when we have an emergency, with other utilities.” Dr. Zhang confirmed that 20% of the staff works from home. While the health crisis situation has improved as compared to 2-3 months ago, all staff working in operations and in the field still have to wear the required PPE.
In India, water management has been declared essential services and a staff of over 2000 persons has been working tirelessly to ensure uninterrupted supply. Dr. Gunalan, from Chennai Metro Water, gave an insightful look into the effects of the pandemic from a developing country perspective. Due to the fact that the water utility service is not automated, only approximately 4% of workers can work from home. This increases the risk of contracting the virus for the 96% of the staff who are in the field operating water tankers as well as interacting with the population. Dr. Prabhushankar Gunalan concluded “this is the time for knowledge sharing and working together. Water supply is seen as a thankless job and it is taken for granted. This virus has shed light on the role of the water utilities and it has also paved the way for a developing utility like us to implement more technologies and to be more financially efficient.”
From the UK, Christopher Loughlin shared that “we have not seen, domestically, that their [the customers] ability to pay has been affected but we expect it. We are seeing difficulties in the businesses. Selling water to businesses has been deregulated, so they are finding it hard to pay the historic water bills.” In the Pennon group, 9% of the employees were initially working from home, however, now that the general anxiety around the situation has decreased, some of them have started returning to work.
Key points raised throughout the IWA Online Panel Discussion were:
- Due to the importance of water, all customers are being supplied with water throughout this crisis including those who have been cut off before or those who cannot afford to pay now.
- Having been through an oil in water crisis about 2 years ago, DC Water was prepared for the pandemic. Plus, having an Incident management/emergency team aided in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Safety of workers is paramount thus all of the workers in the field were provided with PPE.
- Delivering the service, guaranteeing the safety of workers (PPE and WFH where possible), maintaining open lines of communication to customers, and preventing the diffusion of the disease have been the priorities during the lockdown
- National financial support is needed to ensure customers can pay in instalments over the next 18 months
- Water Utilities will play a greater role in the economy in the “after pandemic period”
Dr. Shuangyi Zhang
- All workers in and out of office have to wear PPE
- Emergency plans have been created to be prepared for following critical situations
Dr. Prabhushankar Gunalan
- Uninterrupted service is being ensured despite its huge financial impact by ensuring safety of the personnel and public at large.
- Revenue has decreased due to industry being shut down and workers home.
- Worker protection and equipment disinfection is heavily done to ensure no spread of the virus throughout the staff.
- The request for PPE was bottom-up. The employees asked for them despite the government saying that wearing masks and other protective gears was unnecessary.
- The current circumstances present the opportunity for the water industry to reset itself; create a water legacy showing that water supply and sanitation is not an expectation but it is essential.
- This situation shows that utilities can manoeuvre through difficult times as well as operate under dangerous circumstances.