The annual celebration of World Water Day on 22 March is meant to spotlight the importance of water in our daily lives as well as the 2.2 billion people who do not have access to safe water.
COVID-19 has shifted global attention to the vital importance of hygiene in the fight against the spread of diseases. Governments, civil society and the private sector have gone into overdrive to drum home the need for handwashing. This is great! However, there is very little mention of the people whose safe water supply is regularly disconnected or about to be disconnected.
I completely understand that utilities need to cover the cost of production, maintenance and expansion into unserved communities. However, at a time of global emergency we need to put public health and safety before cost recovery. We can take cues from countries with sophisticated welfare systems like Denmark and Norway, whose governments guaranteed 75% and 80% of employed and self-employed workers’ wages. Even the UK government has pledged hundreds of billions to support businesses, public services, and people through this period of disruption. This approach should be replicated for water service providers and consumers to offset losses and cover the bills of people whose income is affected due to COVID-19.
Governments should set aside funds for people who cannot afford their water bills, immediately restore services and ban future disconnections. As well as a human rights violation, disconnecting people’s water supply because they cannot afford it constitutes a global health emergency - especially during a viral pandemic. Governments must urgently enshrine the right to safe water in their constitution if it isn’t recognised already.
One way to support the provision of water as a global public good is to call on the UN to reform the World Bank. We should remember the World Bank was formed from two institutions, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (established in 1944 to rebuild Europe after the Second World War) and the International Development Association (established in 1960 to to help developing countries access grants and soft-loans). Though The World Bank has contributed some grants to the water and sanitation sector, these have largely been insufficient. Some of these grants have been tied to conditions, such as closing down public fountains or introducing stringent measures for water tariff collections that spurred the use of water-flow restrictors (prepaid water-meters). Such measures are geared towards reducing losses for water companies.
The Bank must shed its neo-liberal ideology and market-based approach and return to funding services - like water and sanitation - that have huge health and social benefits. Further, the Bank's governance must be reformed to reflect the voice of developing countries rather than be dominated by the US and Europe. The process through which countries access grants should be simplified and accommodate the local realities of recipient countries.
The reformed World Bank should collect mandatory tax payments from multinational corporations such as Google, Apple, Amazon, Disney, Shell, BP, Cargill etc. who profit handsomely from good public services while contributing comparatively little to sustain them. They can afford to invest their profits back into society without going bust.
There is no doubt that we shall eventually overcome COVID 19 just as we were able to suppress Ebola and Plague. What is uncertain is preventing the emergence of new diseases in the future. COVID-19 shows that we are not isolated communities whose only concern is the health of our respective nation. We live in one giant, interconnected world; pandemics respect no national boundaries. The best way to minimise or slow down their spread is to ensure universal access to safe water. Do not disconnect!