Opinion: Access to water is essential in the fight against covid-19

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The world as we know it has changed. Across the globe, countries are fighting a deadly pandemic for which they were collectively unprepared. Today the total number of confirmed cases of covid-19 stands at around 5.5 million, of which 350,000 have lost their lives. These numbers probably hide the true picture and will undoubtedly continue to rise.

Although Mozambique has faired better than many countries so far, there has recently been a significant increase in transmission chains. This has led the WHO to declare that the country is entering a new phase of the epidemic and it is reasonable to assume that it will face a similar battle to others to contain the virus. What is also becoming increasingly clear is that this crisis will not be over in a matter of weeks or months. A world with coronavirus is the new normal for the foreseeable future.

The efforts of the Mozambican government, in particular the Ministry of Health, to combat and contain the virus are to be commended. While a number of prominent world leaders have taken a questionable stance, we should be thankful for the decisive action that has been taken here. A presidential decree issuing a state of emergency was an important step and we see and hear daily reminders of the precautionary measures that we need to take to keep safe. A clear strategy to contain the virus is fundamental given the risk that the health system could quickly become overwhelmed if required to treat a large numbers of cases over a short period.

Social distancing is a key part of this containment strategy. This is the idea that we need to stay at least one metre apart from others to avoid the risk of infection. A number of countries such as South Africa have implemented this by enforcing a much stricter lockdown. Such a policy is hard to maintain for a prolonged period. In a country like Mozambique, social distancing will be extremely difficult to follow for the majority of people. How do you socially distance in a busy market like Zimpeto? Or in a crowded chapa on your way to work? Or waiting for treatment at a hospital?

Another key message we hear is the importance of handwashing. Speaking from the standpoint of an organisation that has been talking about hygiene for almost forty years, it gives me huge satisfaction to see it promoted with such fervour. The simple action of rubbing hands together with water and soap can effectively kill the microscopic parasite that has led to such an incredible level of human suffering and the shutdown of large parts of the global economy. Is it possible that something as simple as a bar of soap can neutralise this threat? Is this all we need to save our lives and those of our families and avert a new Great Depression that would set our development back decades?

Unfortunately the simple answer is no. Read that sentence back one more time and you will notice that handwashing with soap requires one other essential ingredient to defend us against coronavirus. Water. And not just any water. Safe water that is free from contamination. And herein lies the problem. Handwashing is not a simple act if you don’t enjoy access to safe, reliable water. Unfortunately this is the reality for almost half of all Mozambicans in 2020.

Ensuring reliable access to safe water for all is enshrined in the Sustainable Development Goals which were collectively signed by governments from around the world, including Mozambique. The aim is to achieve universal access to water by 2030. There is still a long way to go and the covid-19 pandemic has injected a new urgency. The link between access to water and the health of the population has never been clearer. In the absence of a vaccine or cure, if we want to protect ourselves from this virus and a host of other diseases, people must have access to water so they are able to practice regular handwashing at home, in schools, in healthcare facilities and in public places.

Although significant gains have been made in increasing access to water, in particular in urban areas, many rural areas remain left behind and there are huge discrepancies between provinces. Groundwater remains a vast untapped resource to be developed. Investment needs to be smart and not only in infrastructure but also in developing appropriate management models and support mechanisms to ensure water keeps flowing. Water tariffs are required to cover running costs but must also be affordable for the poorest.

Reaching everyone in Mozambique with water will require a concerted effort from government, international development partners and the private sector. It will require strong leadership, coordination and, most importantly, resources – both human and financial. It can and must be achieved however if we are to secure the safe, healthy and economically productive future this country rightly deserves.

Adam Garley
Country Director – WaterAid Mozambique

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