We cannot afford to wait

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By Katrin Bruebach, Director Urban Water and Sanitation Solutions, Global Resilient Cities Network (GRCN)

In the midst of COVID-19, today is a very important day; World Water Day, which this year focuses on water and climate change.

As we fight this pandemic globally, climate change remains one of the world’s top challenges. No matter what happens in the coming months, the world’s climate is changing, climate adaptation and urban resilience will remain vital.

More so, in a world facing climate change and a global health crisis, clean water, safe sanitation, and improved hygiene has never been more important.

Who would have guessed one of the biggest news items globally in 2020 would involve being told how to wash your hands? Who would have thought that one can spend so much time with friends, family, and colleagues talking about and discussing where to find such luxuries as hand sanitizer, disinfectant or the right soap — and don’t forget the risk of running out of toilet paper while being forced to work from and stay at home.

No matter what, helping cities to ensure that they can provide safe water and sanitation services to everyone, doesn’t begin and end with washing your hands. Through our work, we have long known the challenges to prevent the spread of disease. Good personal hygiene, food hygiene, even phone and desk hygiene, all stem from safe sanitation and the availability of clean water. Put bluntly, without safe sanitation and good hygiene, everything will get dirty — whether you’re washing, cooking, or greeting each other. And disease follows right behind.

While we are discussing the best hand sanitizing solutions, it’s shocking to realize that there are 42 countries where more than half of the population lives in homes that lack basic handwashing facilities with soap and water (Joint Monitoring Programme).

Worse still, the World Health Organization and UNICEF estimate that 43% of global clinics and healthcare facilities have nowhere to wash your hands. 896 million people who visit them will find no clean water. And 1.5 billion will find no safe sanitation (UNICEF & WHO, 2019).

It’s all the more terrifying when you consider the impact of COVID-19. While the coronavirus outbreaks have not reached much of the most vulnerable regions of the world, that doesn’t mean that COVID-19 won’t be present. Having spread like wildfire where hand washing and healthcare aren’t a luxury, it could spread even faster in cities that lack both.

We need to use the momentum around COVID-19 to renew our commitment and focus to build urban water resilience in cities around the world. Not only because we need to fight climate change and its impact on urban water systems but also because it is absolutely critical that cities are enabled to provide safe water and sanitation to all their residents. That also means that we need to shift our attention to cities in developing countries where large parts of the population live in informal settlements and access to safe water and basic sanitation, including hand wash facilities, is not a given. COVID-19 does not recognize national borders, so wherever it has a foothold it will continue to grow and spread.

Priorities all over the world are changing. The global pandemic and its impacts are reminding us all how deeply vulnerable we are to threats beyond our control. While we all have started to question old assumptions and behaviors, I strongly believe that there also may be an opportunity around this deeply concerning the situation. I hope that it will create a new openness to arguments for collective action we haven’t thought about before, and I hope it will encourage us to increase our commitment to building water resilience around the world. Because water, safe sanitation, and hygiene seem to be one of the best chances we have to defend our cities. We cannot afford to wait.

We cannot afford to wait