May 14, 2020

What does COVID-19 mean for WASH and Vulnerable Communities?

The Hague, Netherlands, 12 May 2020. Imagine being in the middle of a pandemic with no access to safe sanitation or clean drinking water, and no room for personal space. What do you do when 2 of the most useful measures of prevention are regular hand-washing and social distancing? Vulnerable communities face this daunting reality amidst this COVID-19 pandemic while trying to reduce the possibility of infection.


The IWA Online Panel on “COVID-19: WASH in Vulnerable Communities” delved into the many aspects of WASH for vulnerable communities including its importance within this 2020 pandemic and beyond, the innovative measures that have been taken, and the social changes which have occurred thus far. Brian Arbogast, Director of Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Program, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, chaired the IWA Online Panel with 4 expert speakers from different organisations working in the WASH sector either on the ground or in multilateral settings: Dr Eunice Ubomba-Jaswa, Research Manager (Water Resources Quality & Management), Water Research Commission (WRC), South Africa, Puneet Kumar Srivastava, Urban WASH Advisor (Utilities) at WaterAid, Juste Hermann Nansi, Country Director for IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre,  Burkina Faso, and Maggie Montgomery Technical Officer, World Health Organisation (WHO).


Brian Arbogast opened the Online Panel by setting the context of the current global WASH situation. He asserted that, “COVID-19 response policies need to explicitly link inclusive water, sanitation and hygiene for the benefit of all communities.” He described the status of proper water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) practices and methods in health care facilities and the effort of ensuring the provision of effective hand hygiene measures, and expressed the urgent need for robust investments in WASH at all levels of the response to the pandemic health crisis. 


In their opening statements, the panellists gave brief descriptions of their efforts working on the topic during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Ubomba-Jaswa and Mr. Srivastava mentioned that both of their organisations focused on sensitising the public, producing safe and effective hand-washing stations along with other methods, and the promotion of behavioural changes that sustain the current practices. In Burkina Faso, Juste Nansi described the response-situation to this health crisis as a great challenge, since some towns have overcrowded public water points. In addition to this already high-risk situation, 80% (16 million people) of the population do not have safely managed household connections. Thus IRC turned its focus to the future by working on the preparedness of vulnerable communities for any potential pandemic or emergency. Maggie Montgomery raised three main points in this context: WASH is central to COVID-19 response and recovery; hand hygiene (most cost-effective preventative measure) is crucial and warrants more attention and resources; and that now is a good time to re-evaluate, become involved in and push WASH systems and hygiene practices. She also outlined the new WHO Strategic Response plan which includes 5 pillars about WASH.


During the Online Panel discussion, panelists responded to questions from the audience and got well engaged in the discussion led by Brian Arbogast. They debated on the topic including the impact of COVID-19 on WASH policy making, maintaining the momentum behind this increased awareness on WASH practices, and some of the technical innovations they have observed since the outbreak. In response to a question from the audience about incentives for behavioural changes, Dr Ubomba-Jaswa stated, “trying to give people an understanding as to what they’re trying to protect themselves from, does lead to some behavioural change.” She went on to state that sensitising from a young age also supports formative behaviours. Further, health care facilities should be examples for good WASH practices, thus, encouraging the public to do the same.


Maggie Montgomery addressed the way in which the World Health Organisation (WHO) ensures WASH as a must in operations. She highlighted that local and national governments are strongly encouraged to incorporate WHO guidelines into their policies. She raised attention to the fact that several development banks have been investing billions of dollars into WASH programmes in different regions of the world, thus ensuring that it is included in country operation. 


Juste Nansi was asked how IRC ensures that WASH is of high-level political concern. In his response to this critical question he stated that awareness is the basis to start with. For this purpose, IRC uses mainstream media to communicate to the public about the importance of WASH during this pandemic and is planning to continue this for the post-COVID agenda Further, the collaboration with the health sector is crucial. He identified the collaborative effort amongst sectors as key to WASH facilitation. 


On the innovations seen during the pandemic, Puneet Srivastava mentioned the installation and use of foot-operated hand-washing systems as well as soap and hand sanitiser dispensers. Further to this she raised attention to the use of ground markings to ease clear social distancing. He stated that the focus would be to find solutions which support managing the amount of people at water points to avoid overcrowding as a high risk for contagiousness. Here, the use of digital innovations for communication and remote management of the facilities are important. 


The takeaways from this discussion are:

  • Given the nature of the virus, WASH practices are the foundation for an effective response to the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. It requires enormous efforts to ensure the safety and protection of every citizen in vulnerable areas. Given this, the risk of spreading of the virus decreases. 
  • Collaboration among the various relevant stakeholders is the key to ensuring a sustained push behind WASH i.e. inter-sectoral, inter-governmental, and inter-organisational. 
  • WASH needs to be set high on the political agenda to serve the need for increasing robust investments in WASH building blocks.


The COVID-19 pandemic highlights the importance of WASH services and having access to them to protect the population. It also shows that there are many roles water professionals play in the mitigation and prevention of this virus. Advising on and implementing concrete technical solutions are some of these roles as is the creation of awareness campaigns to encourage the necessary behavioural changes to enhance health protection and prevention for the most vulnerable.



More information

IWA Water and COVID-19 resource page 

IWA COVID-19 Task Force

Erin Jordan

Strategic Programmes Officer - Strategic Programmes & Engagement erin.jordan [a]