The Intersectionality of WASH, Climate Change, and the Coronavirus

By Evan Thomas, Doris Kaberia

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have provided clear guidance on the most critical measure we can all take to protect human health and reduce the spread of COVID-19: “Hands should be washed with soap and water.” While clear and simple, this directive is far from attainable for the 3 billion people around the world who lack access to soap and safe water at home.

While we don’t yet know how many people will die from COVID-19, we do know that an estimated 842,000 people die every year from a lack of safe drinking water and inadequate sanitation and hygiene (WASH). Most of these deaths are preventable, especially if we collectively take the extraordinary measures to solve the problem that we are taking now to fight COVID-19. This intersectionality—where these historic inequalities in access to basic services may accelerate the spread of COVID-19—deserves attention equal to our present emergency response. This is all the more important given that water insecurity is increasing globally, attributable in part to climate change.

In East Africa, the Drought Resilience Impact Platform (DRIP), supported by a trio of other USAID programs, is responding to the compound challenge of responding to disease, water insecurity, and climate change.

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Ending Drought Emergencies in the Horn of Africa

The 2011 drought in East Africa caused food shortages for over 10 million people and as many as 260,000 deaths. The more recent 2016 drought in Kenya resulted in over 3 million people facing food insecurity. Historically, responses to drought have been reactive, involving international emergency assistance to save lives and livelihoods through short term emergency programs. And yet, a 2018 study by USAID estimated that, over the long-term, each $1 invested in resilience in areas of recurrent crises would result in nearly $3 savings in averted losses and humanitarian need.

A consortium, including the Millennium Water Alliance and the University of Colorado Boulder, has been working through the Drought Resilience Impact Platform (DRIP) in the Horn of Africa to reduce the impact of climate change exacerbated by drought. Using remote reporting sensors and satellite based remote sensing, DRIP is monitoring the water supplies of over 3 million people on a daily basis using satellite-connected sensors installed on groundwater boreholes in arid regions of Ethiopia and Kenya. The data gathered is also used to support borehole repairs, water trucking, and groundwater management.

DRIP was developed iteratively and informed by several aligned, though independent, efforts. In Kenya, USAID and the Swiss Development Corporation support the Kenya Resilient Arid Lands Partnership for Integrated Development (Kenya RAPID) program. In Ethiopia, the USAID Lowland WASH Activity, operated under contract by DT Global, is working to address water security in arid, resource constrained regions. Further, we are supported by the NASA and USAID SERVIR program to work with the Regional Centre for Mapping of Resources for Development (RCMRD) and the Famine Early Warning Systems Network. Those partnerships allow us to employ satellite-based remote sensing to monitor food and water security in the region. RCMRD is also on the front lines of monitoring the spread of COVID-19 in East Africa.

In the arid regions of Kenya and Ethiopia, shocking gaps remain in access to basic WASH services. In Kenya, about 35 percent of rural water pumps were broken before the 2016 drought. This increased to over 55 percent during the drought because of mechanical failures or depleted groundwater. In rural Kenya, only 59 percent of households have access to improved water sources, and only 10 percent have a place for handwashing with soap and water in their homes. In rural Ethiopia, 56 percent of households have an improved water source, while only 4 percent have a place to wash their hands with soap and water.


Women opening faucet of water

The USAID-supported Sustainable WASH Systems Learning Partnership (SWS), led by the University of Colorado Boulder, has recently identified key factors in enabling effective water service delivery. These include monitoring capacity, technical capacity, policy and regulatory oversight, and government-led financial incentive programs. Similarly, several factors have been identified that influence water user payments. Most critically, users are more likely to pay for water services if reliable and fast maintenance and repairs occur. These water service and water user payment factors are relevant to the DRIP theory of change and deployments.

In some ways, DRIP is a simple WASH program. We identify strategically important groundwater boreholes and support cost-effective investments to ensure water security. In another way, this effort draws attention to the unequal impact of climate change. Its effects are felt hardest in some of the most resource-constrained regions in the world. During the COVID-19 pandemic response, we have proposed to provide soap in dispensers at the same strategic borehole sites we are monitoring. This approach will help improve both water security and hygiene while also creating positive health behavior change and market demand for soap products.

The global community is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. And yet, other human health hazards—like climate change, drought, and food and water security—have not gone away. We must apply our ability to act collectively to solve these chronic public health challenges. Ensuring community water security, sustainable WASH services, and safe hygiene will not only address chronic needs, but can serve to increase the public health resilience of drought-prone communities and reduce the negative effects of pandemics and climate change in East Africa.

Strategic Objective
Adaptation, Climate Policy, Climate Risk Management, Health, Mitigation, Resilience, Water and Sanitation, WASH, Weather

Evan Thomas

Evan Thomas is the Director of the Mortenson Center in Global Engineering and holds the Mortenson Endowed Chair in Global Engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is a tenured Associate Professor jointly appointed in the Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering and the Aerospace Engineering Sciences Departments, and an affiliate faculty in Environmental and Occupational Health at the Colorado School of Public Health. Evan is a currently a member of the NASA and USAID SERVIR Applied Sciences Team.

Doris Kaberia

Doris Kaberia joined MWA in February 2013 as the Director of the Kenya programs. She now works as the Chief of Party for the Kenya RAPID Program.  Ms. Kaberia has more than 15 years of experience in food security and livelihood program management and administration, sustainable community development, grant writing/fundraising, and program monitoring and evaluation.  Ms. Kaberia is also an expert in pastoral and agro-pastoral livelihood programming in drought-prone Horn of Africa.  

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