The Role of WASH in COVID-19 Response, Recovery and Resilience

One of the most effective ways to stop the spread of the virus is also one of the simplest: hand hygiene, especially through handwashing with soap. Yet, this is an unimaginable luxury for more than 300 million people living without access to safe water in sub-Saharan Africa. These people do not have water to drink or cook, a far cry from having enough water to maintain hand-hygiene. While COVID-19 has amplified the risks associated with water-Insecurity, it has also drawn global attention to the crisis. Ghana and Kenya - our focus countries, have ensured emergency provision of water to high-risk groups as part of their COVID-19 response but building resilience to the current and future pandemics will require much more than this. The Project Maji model is one such step in the right direction.

Heightened Inequalities

COVID-19 has amplified existing inequalities in the suffering that water insecurity inflicts on Individuals, families, communities and countries. In the absence of an effective pharmaceutical treatment, handwashing with soap is promoted as the frontline defense against the virus. But this simple yet effective measure remains out of reach for more than 400 million people in sub-Saharan Africa. A recent study shows that the inequality in access to clean water and soap is disproportionately affecting the poorest households and rural residents, who represent the majority of the population in most of the countries in the region. In addition, where handwashing is limited and waterborne illness is already common, not only will COVID-19 spread more easily, Its lethality could be amplified. This is because diarrheal diseases caused by waterborne pathogens and poor hygiene inhibit nutrient absorption, so that even those with access to adequate nutrition may face malnutrition because they lack access to safe water, compounding the risk and severity of COVID-19. Likewise, home-stay policies and social distancing regulations are difficult to implement in the region as 40% of the population live under $1.9 a day and up to two-thirds of the jobs come from the informal sector. At the household level, women and girls face the greatest risk of virus exposure as they spend hours each day waiting in crowded queues for water vendors. They do not have the luxury to stay at home or observe social distancing as they shoulder the water collection burden for their families. Compounding the issue still further, restrictions on movement may lessen the ability to access water at all, comprising health and food security for families.

Water in response

Responding to these vulnerabilities, in the urban and peri-urban context, the Ghanaian government has largely focused on providing direct support to cover service fees, either through waiving or deferring water bill payments and freezing tariff adjustments to ease the economic burden of the pandemic—both on households and utilities. In rural settings, state-owned as well as privately held waterpoints were directed to provide free water to surrounding communities. under the free water mandate of the government. In addition, the government of Ghana is currently spending money to use water tanks to provide water for poor rural communities severely hit by the pandemic. Similarly, in Kenya, free potable water was promised for rural dwellers and Informal settings while utilities were directed not to disconnect piped connections over non-payment of bills. International organizations, safe water enterprises and NGOs have also sprung into action, releasing assistance funds, organizing mass risk communication campaigns in support of the Kenyan government's COVID-19 response, as well as delivering handwashing trainings and providing handwashing stations across Ghana.

However, these interventions have all been delivered as part of emergency response to the pandemic with a short-term focus. The ongoing pandemic must serve as a reminder for water authorities and the respective governments of the importance of improving water access for the vulnerable populations to build resilience against future disease outbreaks. Particularly in SSA, where poorly developed water and sanitation systems was reported to be a key determinant of the rapid spread of the 2014 Ebola outbreak, as well as an underlying factor in the high number of deaths. In other words, COVID-19 is not the first pandemic of Its kind and nor will it be the last. The stakes are high, and those in leadership positions must leverage the increased attention towards WASH to build and implement sustainable solutions.

Water in Resilience

In the post-pandemic world, we must use what we are learning about the centrality of a robust WASH infrastructure in prevention and resilience against global risks such as infectious diseases and climate shocks. To address such risks, there is a need to reinforce water governance to ensure the reliable delivery of water for priority uses through sustainable means. Alternatively, constructing more resilient water, sanitation, and hygiene systems that will deliver these fundamental services despite the uncertainties of climate change, growing water scarcity and disease outbreaks.

The starting point towards this would be to adopt a systems approach. Understanding that water is a connector across all systems shaping our lives and how destructive disturbances to these systems can be. These include for example, food security, global health and economic development. Sustainable access to water is crucial in ensuring smooth functioning of these systems individually and in conjunction with each other.

The systems approach automatically implies a commitment to deliver sustainable water solutions with a long-term understanding of the water crisis. Something that we, at Project Maji, pride ourselves with. Our model encapsulates and addresses the present and future risks posed by water Insecurity, while ensuring the Project Maji solution is self-sustainable and the communities we serve are self-reliant.

Project Maji Solution

First off, our kiosks and standpipes rely solely on solar energy incurring virtually zero running costs. Our solutions are non-polluting and emit no greenhouse gases as opposed to other motorized pumps. Using advanced electronic sensors placed in the tank and the borehole, we prevent overflowing and over-pumping to protect the aquifer from running dry, ensuring that our solution is environmentally friendly and does not exacerbate the climate crisis.

Second, we believe long-term access to safe water is only possible through sustainable community financing of each waterpoint. We promote community patronage of each site by implementing a cashless e-payment system that secures water revenue for future repairs and operating expenses, making each community self-reliant. Through a robust site-servicing and remote monitoring system, our technical team monitors the performance of each kiosk on a daily basis, aiming for 99% uptime of each site, leading to a reliable safe water source for the communities we serve.

Third, we recognize that only a fit-for-purpose solution is truly sustainable. So, we Install a tailor-made solution in each water-Insecure setting we enter. Our standard solution, the Project Maji kiosk is modular and can be flat packed to be easily assembled in the remote areas we serve. The standard kiosk can increase a community's water consumption from 5,000 to 20,000 litres per day, depending on the demand. But to reach smaller dispersed rural hamlets, we deploy our smart solar standpipes that require smaller solar panels. By building a network of solar standpipes, we are able to provide universal coverage, pushing multiple communities up the water service ladder in one go, in a sustainable and economically viable way.

Finally, we have institutionalized hygiene trainings as part of community engagement in our operational model. Our standard 30-minute trainings are aimed at implementing behavioral change towards hygiene, water consumption, water wastage and patronage of the water point. As part of our Covid-19 response, the trainings have been altered to emphasize handwashing as a frontline defence tool against the virus. Keeping social distancing regulations in mind, heads of households are trained on proper handwashing techniques and are expected to extend their learning to their families for effective prevention of current and future pandemics.

COVID-19 was a true test of the resilience of our model. Having weathered this storm with agility, compassion and uninterrupted supply of safe water to Maji communities, we have been re-affirmed of the strength of the Maji model. Moreover, we believe in sharing our learnings against the challenges at play and welcome collaborative efforts amongst key stakeholders in the sector. At Project Maji, we recognize that this is the time for rethinking the rural water landscape for resilience against this and future infectious disease outbreaks, and remain committed to contribute to the growth of the sector.