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Public health is moot without water security

By Richard Dawson

Personal measures against COVID-19 infection, such as hand-washing and wearing protective clothing, are redundant without proper sanitation and a reliable water supply.

In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, when safe water is more critical than ever, the Water Security and Sustainable Development Hub has issued a call, published in Nature, for the acceleration of funding and ambition to tackle water security.

Without such investment our capacity to prevent re-occurrence and future pandemics will be fundamentally limited.

COVID-19 is dramatically changing the world we live in. Global GDP looks set to contract by 5.2%, whilst millions are facing starvation and loss of livelihoods. As the enormous human toll of COVID-19 continues, the pandemic has exposed global inequalities in water security with billions of people unable to enact personal protective measures because they lack access to safe water.

In the face of a global public health crisis caused by an infectious disease, the lack of adequate water for hygiene at home, the lack of basic handwashing facilities in schools, and the lack of reliable supplies of water and sanitation services in health care locations around the world represents a fundamental failure of water security and human rights.

This crisis starkly demonstrates that water security is not a 'side project' of 'charitable development' but a core element in global health and wider security.

The latest findings of the Edelman Trust Barometer show the majority of people across the world prioritise public health – in which safe water is key – over economic recovery, yet UN experts have already made clear that the crisis will remain unchecked if the most vulnerable cannot access safe water. By failing to address water insecurity of our most vulnerable, we jeopardise public health, economic activity, supply chains, environmental protection, and social stability.

Water for all

Three decades on from the end of the UN’s First Water Decade, the motto of which was ‘Water for All’, the world is still not on track to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 6 ‘Clean Water and Sanitation for All’.

The true value of prioritising water is not only our ability to fight future pandemics, but in the enormous social, environmental, and economic returns that water security brings.

Newcastle University Press Office : Newcastle University has been ranked 11th in the world for its impact on society and leadership in sustainable development.

This is what the Hub is working towards, by bringing together an international team of researchers to work collaboratively alongside local communities (many of whom are marginalised groups) and a cohort of partners from utilities, industry, local and national government, regulators, professional bodies, and the third sector. Challenging the systemic barriers to water security requires an integrated approach to a wide range of activities including water supply, wastewater treatment, flood management, sanitation, catchment management, pollution, maintenance, funding, and finance. Working in four locations – Colombia, Ethiopia, India, and Malaysia – the Hub will demonstrate that a better understanding of the whole water system and its inter-linkages, enables us to build more resilient, sustainable systems that benefit us all.

Please show your support for our mission by sharing the Nature correspondence on Twitter, Linkedin or other social media feeds.

Links and Related Items

Our correspondence in Nature

Dawson et al. (2020) Public health is moot without water security, Nature 583: 360 doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-02085-y

Tags: One Planet, Covid-19, Engineering, Sustainable Development