Water Security and Future Pandemics
Written by Dr. Zafar Adeel
The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the deep challenges of water security in many parts of the world. Water insecure communities that do not have access to safe water, and consequently, have poor hygiene practices, were at the greatest risk. As officials from World Health Organization (WHO) and national health authorities have been urging the public that handwashing as a key element of beating the pandemic, putting that guidance into practice is not practical if your daily water supply is already contaminated with pathogens and chemicals.
The pandemic has also understandably resulted in diversion of national and international development resources away from achievement of water security and towards timely and critical emergency responses in the health sector. While this diversion is a prudent emergency response, we do not know yet the long-term health and economic impacts of delayed achievement of universal water security. A recent UN report has highlighted the need for quadrupling the pace of providing safe drinking water.
I argue that the shocks brought to our society as a result of this pandemic demonstrate the urgent need for a greater level of preparedness against future pandemics. This notion is particularly important because future pandemics could be fundamentally different in how the pathogens are transmitted or how they impact the society at large.
There are four broad areas that require attention of policymakers and decisionmakers. Achieving universal water security is crucial to strengthening our preparedness in each of these areas.
First, secure, sustainable and universal access to water that is safe to consume and free of any pathogens or chemical contaminants is of utmost importance. Achieving universal water access means giving priority to those who are already socially vulnerable and at-risk. The challenge is the greatest in water-scarce countries, particularly for communities that are socially and politically marginalized. Provisioning of safe water must be accompanied by a strong focus on capacity building and training for adequate sanitation and hygiene practices.
Second, the food supply must be secured such that local food production can adequately meet at least the short-term needs of communities. The COVID-19 has demonstrated that disruption of national and international food supply chains exposes communities to food insecurity. In particular, remote communities – even in developed countries such as Canada – are at risk because a pandemic can completely sever their food supply. Establishing the much-needed food security, however, requires a sufficient supply of water resources to grow and process food. This combined challenge of food-water insecurity is a serious threat for water-scarce countries and must be addressed urgently if we are to successfully overcome future pandemics.
Third, the public health system must be robust and have response mechanisms that are scalable to meet the challenges posed by a pandemic. In many developing countries, we observe public health systems operating at sub-par level because of lack of access to safe, clean water. Published research about maternal and infant mortality shows a strong correlation of these adverse health outcomes to access to safe water and adequate sanitation. There are numerous examples in which provisioning of safe and clean water in maternity clinics have resulted in significant short- and long-term health benefits. As is already noted in the globally-agreed Sustainable Development Goals, provisioning of safe water to health facilities must receive a high priority.
Fourth, it is important to have an economy that is resilient against shocks from pandemic and other global drivers such as climate change. Published evidence suggests that water insecurity can have a significant impact on achievement of sustainable economic growth; this is true for both industrial-based economies and agriculture-based ones.
In achieving significant improvement in these four areas, national governments have an important role to play by directing investments and creating a policy environment that is conducive to achieving universal water security. The SDGs offer a comprehensive framework through which these objectives can be achieved. In particular, SDG6 describes the specific targets related to access to safe water and sustainable management of water resources. The UN report mentioned earlier points out that the current trajectory of SDG6 implementation would not lead to achievement of its targets. That means national governments and the international community need to step up their efforts in this respect to be secure against future pandemics.
Equally important, however, is the engagement of and support for community-based and service organizations in building community-level awareness and resilience. The grass-roots engagement of these organizations in enhancing preparedness is crucial for creating effective responses to any future pandemics.
The private sector also has to play a significant role in achieving water security – particularly in promoting de-centralized water solutions, developing innovative but cost-effective technologies, and mobilizing the capital needed for deployment of these solutions.
It is important for the general public to understand how water insecurity exacerbates vulnerabilities to pandemics and other, similar global threats. That understanding, when combined with political and policy responses, offers us the key ingredient for a better response to the next pandemic.
 Executive Director, Pacific Water Research Centre and Professor of Professional Practice, School of Sustainable Energy Engineering, Simon Fraser University
 UN-Water, 2021: Summary Progress Update 2021 – SDG 6 – water and sanitation for all. Version: 1 March 2021. Geneva, Switzerland.
We respectfully acknowledge that the PWRC operates on the unceded traditional territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations.