Governments: protect people from Covid-19 by realising their human rights to safe water
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The advice is clear. Washing your hands is the primary way of preventing Covid-19 infection. But for 2.2 billion people this advice is impossible to follow: how can you wash your hands if you don’t have safe water?
If practicing good hygiene is central to public advice, providing safe water for all must be central to government action. In March, the United Nations warned that decades of chronic underfunding of water infrastructure puts the world at greater risk from the coronavirus. For those in health centres, this risk is acute. One in four health centres worldwide lack basic water services, leaving doctors, nurses, cleaners and sanitation workers unable to protect themselves, their families or their patients from infection.
Supplying water is a public service and it is encouraging to see states rediscover their duties as service providers and regulators. Some countries, including Argentina, Peru, Spain and Zambia, issued a directive not to disconnect people’s water supply for the duration of the coronavirus crisis. Meanwhile, Ghana went further by absorbing consumers’ water bills for three months. Similarly, Indonesia, Liberia, Rwanda and South Africa are providing water and handwashing facilities to informal settlements and public places, while Botswana and Zimbabwe allocated £31 million and £34 million respectively to improving water services.
We welcome this unprecedented state action. However some countries’ Covid-19 responses continue to neglect society’s poorest and most marginalised members. The water crisis is a pandemic that could significantly compromise efforts to contain the coronavirus. End Water Poverty and its members call on governments to urgently realise people’s human rights “to safe, physically accessible and affordable water” by:
- Banning disconnections due to inability to pay
- Immediately restoring water to households, health centres and public spaces (such as schools, streets, workplaces etc.) that are disconnected
- Absorbing outstanding water bills and providing free water to those who cannot afford to pay for the duration of the coronavirus crisis.
- Subsidising water utilities to meet the cost of providing emergency water supply, including by settling unpaid government water and sewerage bills
- As an emergency measure, supplying water, hygiene information and handwashing stations to people and public spaces that are not connected to water supply systems (such as rural communities and people living on the streets)
- As a sustainable solution, delivering safe water and sanitation services to public spaces, health centres and homes, prioritising those in informal settlements, low-income households, rural areas, care homes, prisons and refugee camps.
Governments must transparently communicate progress on these commitments so that journalists and civil society can recognise improvements and constructively hold them to account by:
- Including and listening to civil society (such as women’s rights groups, the elderly, and people with disabilities among others) when developing crisis responses.
- Submitting costed budgets for each policy commitment to parliament
- Setting a timeline for when the policies will be implemented
- Providing communities with regular information and updates on water supply provision to their area by disclosing emergency procurement data as well as related audits, and reporting on the implementation of response measures.
Governments must not discard these measures once concerns over Covid-19 lapse. Rather, they should prepare for future public health risks by enshrining the human rights to safe water and sanitation in national laws or constitutions to proactively protect their economy and society. While the coronavirus makes global headlines, people lose loved-ones every day to water-borne diseases such as cholera, typhoid, lassa fever and diarrhoea, which kills more children under the age of five than any other disease. These deaths are entirely preventable.
We should treat the water crisis as a global health emergency. It shouldn’t take a pandemic to realise that the denial of some people's human rights affects us all. Diseases like Covid-19 respect no national boundaries. In an interconnected world, the best way to minimise and slow their spread is to realise universal access to safe water.
Axolile Notywala, general secretary of Social Justice Coalition (SJC) in South Africa, said:
“This pandemic has exposed the failures of our government in fulfilling the right to water as provided in our constitution. In crowded informal settlements where many are not able to self-isolate, handwashing becomes one of the crucial ways for people to protect themselves from Covid-19, while the meaning of the phrase ‘water is life’ becomes even more poignant. Without adequate access to water, those living informal settlements are essentially left to die.”
Alana Potter, director of research and advocacy at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI), said:
“Service disconnections always impact vulnerable people most severely. Any disconnection at any time must include procedural safeguards such as providing an opportunity to hear the circumstances of the water user. Covid-19 has destroyed the livelihoods of millions of people, making it impossible for many people to pay for services. Disconnecting water services that are essential to block the transmission of Covid-19 presents a threat to people’s lives, particularly in a lockdown”.
Monica Lewis-Patrick, president and CEO We The People of Detroit, said:
“Water rights activists in Detroit have been calling for a moratorium on water shutoffs for over ten years. We’ve always known that depriving people of water is an inhumane practice. The water shutoff policy reversal in the face of a pandemic highlights the risk to public health caused by depriving people’s access to a basic human need: clean water.
Public health officials are now reporting that the coronavirus is impacting marginalized and under-resourced communities at an alarming rate, with Detroit a hot spot in the US. It is not alarming to us. Since 2014, there have been around 141,000 disconnections in Detroit; in January of this year, at least 9,000 households still did not have access to water. How can these families wash their hands for protection against COVID-19 without access to water?”
Local, national, and international officials must plan to protect all global citizens from future pandemics. This is only possible if governments allocate resources to water infrastructure and safe affordable water for all.”
Mary Grant, campaign director at Food & Water Action, said:
“Shutting off people’s water is always an injustice. The pandemic has shone a stark spotlight on the public health dangers of this human rights violation. Our leaders must finally join the global movement to fully realize the human rights to water and sanitation, stop water shutoffs for nonpayment, and take lasting action to end the pervasive water crisis.”
Jean-Claude Oliva, Coordination Eau Ile de France, said:
“In France, Ile-de-France Water and the Danielle Mitterrand Foundation have for several years enabled the enforcement of a law that makes it illegal to shut off water for unpaid bills. We call on all governments to do the same. We demand that French multinationals, present all over the world, respect the human right to water everywhere - not just in France. In addition, unpaid bills must be tackled and water bills for income-deprived households must be cancelled to cope with the Covid-19 crisis.”
Al-hassan, End Water Poverty’s international coordinator, said:
“Covid-19 exposes the gross injustice of the global water crisis. 2.2 billion people still don’t have safe water - how much longer must they wait for the free market to provide? Water is a public good, not a private privilege. 193 countries signed the Sustainable Development Goals pledge to ‘leave no one behind’ in realising universal access to safe water by 2030. Governments must act now to show this is not empty sloganeering. That some governments have rapidly improved water services during a global emergency shows that the water crisis is solvable. Leaders that recognise the role of water in preventing the spread of Covid-19 will save lives.”
This call is part of End Water Poverty’s #ClaimYourWaterRights and #GovernmentPayYourWaterBills campaigns.
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