JOHANNESBURG-DAKAR — People globally are being told to wash their hands to fight the spread of coronavirus but in Africa many cannot, experts said, urging states to use the pandemic as a reason to finally push for improvements to water supplies.

Aid workers and advisers said countries should seize the moment ahead of World Water Day, which was on Sunday. to reinforce water security on a continent hit by frequent droughts and where many people do not have access to a sink.

“In the water sector we always say ‘Don’t waste a good crisis’,” said Inga Jacobs-Mata, the South African representative from non-profit research group the International Water Management Institute (IWMI).

“The coronavirus has already highlighted that safe water and sanitation are essential to protecting human life during all infectious disease outbreaks,” she said in a phone interview.

Africa has been less severely hit by Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus, with an estimated 700 cases on the continent, compared to 41 035 in Italy alone, according to recent reports.

But densely populated slums, limited healthcare facilities, high rates of HIV and tuberculosis (TB) and water shortages caused by drought and poor infrastructure have left governments concerned about the expected spread.

Over the past year, much of the central and western parts of southern Africa have experienced their lowest rainfall since 1981, according to the United Nations.

Still recovering from deadly cyclone Idai that hit about one year ago, Mozambicans wonder how they will fight the virus.

“Severe drought in Mozambique, means women are walking all day to find water … How can people follow health and hand-washing advice during droughts and water shortages?” asked Sara Almer, humanitarian director at international charity ActionAid.

In West and Central Africa, more than a third of all people still do not have access to clean water, according to Unicef.

“Now is the moment to reflect on what additional actions will be needed to reinforce water security everywhere,” said Abdoulaye Sene, executive secretary of the World Water Forum and longtime adviser to the Senegalese government on hydraulics.

Water cuts in Senegal’s capital, Dakar are frequent, with the government responding in the past by bringing in water in fire trucks. Hand sanitiser is already starting to sell out.

In Kenya – where only 14% of people have hand-washing facilities at home, according to UN data – the government has called on water companies to not shut down supply to citizens if payments are overdue and plans on supplying free sanitisers.

The South African government is looking into supplying water tankers, sourcing groundwater and drilling additional boreholes for vulnerable communities, said a spokesman for the Department of Water and Sanitation, Sputnik Ratau.

“I think this is an opportunity,” said Mariame Dem, West Africa regional director for WaterAid.

“It has shaken the decision-makers, it has shaken individuals, and I think the actors now can build from it for a more sustained approach and plan.” 

– Thomson Reuters Foundation

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