Waters of Latin America and the Caribbean: contributions in times of COVID-19

Montevideo, Uruguay
06 - Clean Water and Sanitation
17 - Partnerships for the Goals

Adequate integrated water resource management is one of the most powerful tools to ensure the supply of drinking water and wastewater treatment. In a pandemic situation it will significantly prevent the spread of the disease

“Ensuring the availability of water and its sustainable management and sanitation for all” is one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and clearly reinforces the need to ensure that these resources are available for all. However, many do not have access to this resource. In addition, if water available for a community is not safe, or its sanitation systems do not meet basic requirements, water can become a disease´s vector.

When it comes to ensuring the supply of drinking water and the treatment of wastewater, proper integrated management of water resources is one of the most powerful tools. In a pandemic situation, it will significantly prevent the spread of the disease.

Who participates in the management of water resources? Depending on each community, politicians, executives, decision makers, the scientific community and inhabitants of the territories participate in water management. The role of scientists will be to provide safe and quality information, so results of research and practice support the actions taken.

The scientific community practices the exchange of knowledge in various opportunities. The current circumstances of social distance caused by the COVID-19 pandemic are not an obstacle to continue building bridges in science. Thus, water experts take advantage of virtual tools to meet and share solutions that address the various realities surrounding the management of the waters. One of the most important issues is the authorities´ recommendation of washing hands with soap and water. In Latin America, at least 65 million people do not have access to soap and water, and washing hands becomes not a simple task.

To hear first-hand about the realities of Latin America and the Caribbean countries about their waters, last Thursday March 2nd, 2020, during the webinar "Management tools for the water sector in Latin America and the Caribbean to confront COVID- 19 ”nearly 400 experts and decision-makers in the region's water resources managed to get together. The Pan American Health Organization and UNESCO's Intergovernmental Hydrological Program in Latin America and the Caribbean co-organized the occasion.

65 millions

of people do not have access to soap and water in LAC

15 millions

of people defecate in the open air in LAC

In the words of the participants

The words of Mrs. Lidia Brito, UNESCO Regional Director of Sciences in Latin America and the Caribbean, highlighted the challenges of the water sector to guarantee equality in access to water and sanitation at this very complex moment. This sector must be at the forefront and it is necessary to strengthen alliances in the region to seek answers together.

Mr. Marcelo Korc, Head of the PAHO / WHO Climate Change and Determinants of Health Unit, also pointed out the challenge of the region given the difficulties in access to drinking water and sanitation. This situation is an opportunity to mitigate the impact of the pandemic through joint actions with the water authorities, facilitated and coordinated through the design of a joint “road map”.

Mrs. Patricia Segurado, PAHO / WHO Regional Advisor on water and sanitation addressed the relationship between water, sanitation and hygiene in the prevention of COVID 19. Prevention is more than necessary in a region where the access to water is a challenge. In addition, the lack of investment in the management of drinking water and sanitation generates a real risk. In many countries, less than 1% of GDP is spent on infrastructure, and 15 million people defecate in the open air in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Mr. Miguel Doria, Regional Hydrologist of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Hydrological Program, stressed the importance of management and governance of water resources to ensure the access to water, particularly by the most vulnerable populations, rural, and arid and semi-arid or drought. For this reason, he pointed out that the water sector continues to operate during emergencies, and highlighted the importance of communication on water issues. There is also another potential risk situation such as floods, which usually occur in some parts of the region during these periods of the year, and which require meticulous planning given the ongoing pandemic and social distancing policies.

According to Mr. Leo Heller, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights to water and sanitation, the situation of the most vulnerable people needs to be more visible, since the pandemic will exacerbate their reality. The region´s high urbanization, especially in informal settlements, will imply impacts that cannot yet be measured. Homeless people, the prison population and low-income nursing homes will require special attention. Regarding access to drinking water, Mr. Heller pointed out that no one can be deprived of access to water due to economic incapacity, and it is advisable to reconnect those who could not pay their bill, and not charge water to people with fewer resources.

10 good practices in Mexico

Establishing the main guidelines to face the pandemic from the water sector is essential for scientists and decision makers to join forces. Equally important is the more practical management, and how to deal with daily challenges on the ground. Mrs. Blanca Jiménez Cisneros - Director General of the National Water Commission of Mexico shared 10 practices that are being carried out in her country:

  • Setting priorities, for example, ensuring that all hospitals have access to safe water.
  • Strengthen the message of water saving, given that consumption has increased in some areas. People with better access to clean water should avoid spending on irrigation in gardens or car washes, thus improving access in more vulnerable areas.
  • Streamline water delivery by tanker trucks, establishing delivery points in cities, rather than house-to-house delivery.
  • React quickly to avoid cutting off the water supply.
  • Financially support the system that allows safe water supply, bearing in mind that the production of alcohol in gel would involve double the cost.
  • Publish and widely disseminate materials on proper water management and house cleaning.
  • Make consolidated purchases at the country level, which allows obtaining a better price.
  • Prevent any of the sectors involved in the water supply from stopping its task
  • Work in synergy between the different sectors of the government and private companies, identifying allies trained in the containment of an emergency, and the possibility of managing donations.
  • Ensure coordination and cooperation of the water sector

Support through economic tools is a fundamental pillar in this process. Mr. René Gómez-García, Coordinator of CAF's Green Business Agenda, highlighted the instruments they manage through the 2019/2022 Water Strategy, which the institution develops to promote safe access to water and sanitation. Water, health, education and food are the areas in which these economic supports focus to face current and future challenges.

In conclusion, the sum of cross-sector (including particularly the water, health, agriculture and energy sectors) and transboundary collaboration efforts are relevant to improve the management and governance of water resources. It contributes to universal access to safe water, the sanitation and hygiene in the context of the current health emergency of COVID-19.