Strengthening water security for pandemic preparedness

Published on 7 May 2020

Rachel Cooper

Outbreaks of zoonotic diseases such as Covid-19 may increase in the future due to human drivers such as deforestation and climate change, in turn creating the potential for more pandemics. Sustainable access to adequate quantities of acceptable quality water will be essential to prevent, suppress and treat future outbreaks. Medium term responses to Covid-19 should focus on strengthening water security to prepare for future pandemics and support human health. This could help societies avoid some of the economic and human costs associated with infectious disease outbreaks.

Measures to supress transmission of Covid-19 such as hand-washing, social distancing and self-isolation are challenging if you do not have sufficient access to safe water at home or access to basic handwashing facilities. Globally 2.2 billion people do not have access to safe water at home and 3 billion do not have access to basic hand-washing facilities. Instead they rely on communal water points. Leaving home to collect water could increase people’s risk of infection and transmission rates. The poorest, those living in informal settlements, marginalised groups, and women and girls may be the most vulnerable as they rely on shared water points and toilets, and face inequalities in accessing water.

Water insecurity is increasing, and water demand is growing. Climate change is altering the global water cycle, resulting in more variable and unpredictable water availability. Ensuring that societies and communities have sustainable access to safe water to prevent, suppress and treat future pandemics will require action across four interrelated areas supported by political will, finance, and accountability:

Water supply

Nature-based solutions such as watershed management, green infrastructure in cities, and managed groundwater recharge can improve water storage and supply, potentially increasing water availability and water quality. In urban areas, nature-based solutions such as green walls, roof gardens, and vegetated or drainage basins, can help manage and reduce pollution from urban stormwater run-off.

The Upper Tana-Nairobi Water Fund brings together stakeholders including water utilities, local government and the forest service. In-kind compensation mechanisms support farmers in the watershed to adopt water and soil conservation measures to improve water supply and quality downstream. The Fund predicts that a USD 10 million investment will see USD 21 million in savings from water and wastewater treatment, increased power generation and increased yields for both smallholder farmers and larger producers. This demonstrates again the co-benefits that come from investing in water.

Another option for improving water supply is wastewater reuse. Wastewater treatment for reuse could provide an additional source of water, whilst resource recovery could provide additional revenue streams for utilities, contributing to their sustainability and the sustainability of water supply and sanitation systems.

Water quality

Water quality is decreasing due to a number of drivers. Increasing access to affordable sanitation in urban areas could reduce contamination from human waste and positively affect human health outcomes, including helping to prevent and suppress future pandemics and address the secondary impacts of pandemics. Possible interventions include subsidising the cost of household sanitation, extending the sewer network, measures to improve the safety of the whole onsite sanitation chain (emptying, transporting, and treating), as well as new infrastructure and approaches. For example, container-based sanitation services are operating in poor urban areas and informal settlements in Ghana, Kenya, Haiti and Peru with high customer satisfaction. Waterless toilets are another innovative solution.

Water resources management

New tools including Climate Risk Informed Decision Analysis, and approaches such as China’s sponge cities, and source water protection (applied effectively in Rwanda) can ensure resilience in the face of changing water availability due to climate change. The climate-resilience of water management including institutions and decision-making processes must be enhanced.

Interventions will also be needed to strengthen water governance and stakeholder participation, and to support capacity building for institutions and systems strengthening. The use of new tools such as Water Accounting + and urban water accounting can support decision-making and urban planning by addressing data and information gaps around the amount of water entering and leaving a city, and trends in water supply and demand.

Affordable access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH)

Estimates suggest between USD 28.4 billion and USD 114 billion are needed annually between 2015 and 2030 to meet the Sustainable Development Goal 6 targets for access to WASH.

In urban areas (including in informal settlements), measures such as low-income customer units, smart metres, and other digital tools can increase access to regulated water supplies, ensure sustainable access, and support the sustainability of service provision by reducing non-revenue water. In the longer term, cities could look at ways to extend reliable access to piped water to the home or plot. This would require increased investment for infrastructure and maintenance, good governance and special considerations for low-income customers.

Read more in the recently published K4D Helpdesk Report ‘Water Security Beyond Covid-19’.


Rachel Cooper, based at University of Birmingham, is a researcher on the K4D (Knowledge, Evidence and Learning) programme. She is currently leading a K4D Learning Journey on Water Security for the UK’s Department of International Development (DFID). The Learning Journey aims to increase DFID staff’s learning on water security and climate change.


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