“We are practicing WASH ideals to ensure our safety and that of others and making our own face masks since we cannot afford disposable ones due to their cost.”
These are the words of Moses Kasanda Kolofwati – a dedicated professional from Kafubu Water and Sanitation Company, Zambia – with whom I have the pleasure of working in the international training programme (ITP) I lead on sustainable urban water and sanitation (SUWAS).
The short quote captures two important things about the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging across the globe. First, it highlights that water, sanitation and hygiene are a crucial component of preventing and protecting human health during the outbreak of disease and, secondly, while the ultimate consequence of the virus is equal, our ability to manage the crisis and protect ourselves is widely unequal.
For the last four years, within the Sida-funded capacity development intervention SUWAS, we have enrolled and trained close to 400 WASH professionals across Africa and Asia. Implemented in partnership with the international organisation WaterAid, we have launched 13 programmes since 2016.
The ultimate goal of the SUWAS intervention is to make the systems that provide water and sanitation services more sustainable and also more equitable. Working with senior staff from water utilities, government agencies, local and county governments as well as NGOs and academia, we are strengthening the capacity of individuals, who in turn initiate changes in their institutions, strengthening the systems for service provision in the long run. Some of the changes we are seeing to date are, for example, utilities adopting new and more inclusive water connection policies and gradual payment approaches for people in low-income or peri-urban areas. We are also witnessing regulatory agencies putting frameworks in place to create enabling environments for stakeholders in fecal sludge management and standards for onsite sanitation, improved collaboration among key institutions in cities and town-council budgets and plans being more integrated across sectors of water, education and health.
At the core of the training programme lies the critical aim of improving water and sanitation services for the most marginalised groups in communities, the ones not yet accessing safe and adequate services today. The spread of the COVID-19 virus and its consequences for societies across the world is challenging the very systems that the SUWAS intervention is trying to strengthen and support. Furthermore, as in most crises, it is the most vulnerable or the ones with the least means who are hardest hit. Distancing is a dream in densely populated urban areas. While hand hygiene is a critical element in all disease prevention, its importance is now being emphasised as an essential part of preventing the spread of the virus. That said, the latest estimates by the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme indicate that globally 3 billion people lack access to soap and water at home.
Together with water and sanitation professionals from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Zambia, this week I should have been in Zambia. Obviously, I am not. The last couple of weeks have turned everything upside down, and things we have taken more or less for granted are today less certain. As is the case for most people, the pandemic has impacted the work I do. However, the impact differs widely depending on not only your type of work, but also where you reside and how your society is managing the crisis. For me, the impact on my work has so far mostly been about postponing and finding alternative platforms for exchange of knowledge and delivery of activities. In the best of worlds, new innovative ways of running international training programmes could emerge from this crisis that are less-travel intensive. For others, however, work in times of COVID-19 is about taking huge personal risks to provide essential services, protect communities, and respond to the impact of the immediate crisis.
My thoughts these days are with my participant and alumni colleagues of SUWAS in Africa and Asia, many of whom now find themselves on the front-line of fighting the virus and reducing its toll on their communities. Bravely and with professional pride, they are ensuring communities are receiving access to safe water, sanitation services and information on how hygiene behaviour is key to protection from this disease. Representatives from local and county governments, in many cases from public health departments, are trying to implement and control restrictions in movements and public gatherings in cities and urban areas. Our participants from utilities are struggling to lessen the disruption in existing water supply services while also providing emergency support measures to enable basic water access and soap in communities, healthcare facilities, schools and market places. Not to forget those colleagues working to provide sanitation services, whose efforts are always critical to the functioning of our societies and the safe management of fecal matter as well as solid waste. Safe sanitation strengthens people’s immunity and resilience. We should all be very appreciative towards the people that are providing these services, today and every day.
We are currently preparing to run our last round of SUWAS programmes, with two programmes involving participants from Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Rwanda and another two comprising participants from Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, Cambodia and Lao PDR. An important aspect of the ITP approach is the trainings held in both Sweden and in a country in the respective region. These enable hands-on study visits and cross-country exchange of experiences, and provide exposure to best practices as well as challenges with the ways services are provided in various contexts. We are assessing how the pandemic will affect our last round of programmes and how best to manage the impact to ensure SUWAS can successfully continue and that the ITP can still offer that platform of connecting professionals across countries and peer-to-peer learning.
Despite a lot of uncertainty about the year ahead – one thing is sure: the upcoming programmes will include lessons learned on how the WASH sector responded to the pandemic in various cities and countries. Also, thinking beyond the immediate crisis, the crisis pinpoints the sector’s investment needs, and the urgency of tackling current inequities in WASH between and within countries and cities.
Hopefully - post-COVID-19 - there will be a stronger call and push for more equitable systems for public service provision, and we will see societies and governments investing more in the necessary infrastructure, systems and the key ingredient - the people who deliver what is essential to all of us: safe water and sanitary services.