African water and sanitation projects critical to preparedness for COVID-19-like pandemics
By Wambui Gichuri*
As the prevalence of COVID-19 accelerates across Africa, over 40% of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to clean water and are unable to heed the advice of health experts to wash their hands as a primary way to stop the spread of the virus. Preventing infection thus remains out of reach for many.
Action in the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene sector, also known as WASH, is therefore critical to containing COVID-19. WASH’s core – providing access to clean water, improved sanitation systems and implementing healthy hygiene practices – lowers the infection rate and builds communities’ ability to ward off infectious disease outbreaks.
The African Development Bank’s guide on WASH interventions is currently helping our client governments in their COVID-19 preparedness and emergency response The guide supports the implementation of emergency WASH interventions at hotspots; utilities and service providers to enhance business continuity; hygiene promotion; improved viability of critical hygiene products and supply chains, as well as enhancement of sustainability of hygiene outcomes.
The Bank has been supporting and advocating WASH long before COVID-19’s arrival. Our investment of an estimated $6.4 billion in strengthening core WASH infrastructure systems over the last decade, has provided approximately 52 million additional people access to improved water, sanitation and hygiene as well as increased pandemic preparedness.
Over the next decade or so, our investments in the water sector are set to provide an estimated 154 million more people access to improved WASH.
Many of our established, on-the-ground WASH interventions have adapted to the coronavirus era, especially in resource-constrained settings.
In Zambia, school children recruited in early 2019 to be “WASH ambassadors” have since added the COVID-19-specific message of wearing masks, social distancing and implementing stay-at-home orders to their healthy hygiene and sanitation practices promotion campaign. Their campaign t-shirts, emblazoned with the slogan “Stop Spreading Germs, Wash Your Hands with Soap,” are just as applicable today as when they were designed pre-COVID, as part of a $243 million Lusaka Sanitation Program co-funded by the Bank and other development partners.
In rural northern Malawi, the Bank co-financed and supervised the Integrated Urban Water and Sanitation Project for the Mzimba Town project, which increased the community’s access to potable water from 65% to 95%, raised access to improved sanitation from 45% to 97% and created around 1,000 jobs. It comprised the construction of primary school sanitation facilities, including secured toilets to provide privacy and comfort to the pupils, especially girls.
School children are also serving as ambassadors to convey the message about preventing the COVID-19 pandemic from spreading into their homes and neighborhoods. This WASH project recently received the Prince Talal International Prize for Human Development. The $200,000 in prize money will go to projects implemented by government agencies, public institutions or social businesses approved by the Mzimba Town scheme.
Investments in improved water and sanitation infrastructure is a public health priority for countries and communities as it significantly contributes to reduced mortality, ill health and impacts of water-related epidemics/pandemics which are a major economic drain.
Investing in WASH is a no-regret policy and decisions taken now to improve these public health systems are going to be worth it, regardless of the uncertainty around COVID-19.
*AFDB.Wambui Gichuri is Acting Vice President, Agriculture, Human and Social Development and Director, Water Development and Sanitation at the African Development Bank