By Natalia Ruvalcaba
As we loom through the midst of COVID-19, the ongoing pandemic continues to present all of the globe with struggle and strife. Nearly two years have passed since the initial outbreak, and yet countries around the world are only just beginning to recover. While most schools have reconvened and we have all witnessed a decline in COVID-19 related deaths, the impact of this mutating virus is without end.
In the beginning, shoppers raced to their nearest grocery stores to procure the last bottle of hand sanitizer or toilet paper roll. Customers sold out cases of water, but access to clean water has still not been made a priority. Water was hoarded as people believed that households would need to quarantine, and stocked up as much as they could. However, many United States residents and even more so elsewhere are limited in their ability to fight against this pandemic when access to clean water is finite.
The overlap of the coronavirus pandemic and a global water crisis has led residents worldwide into a constant struggle for survival. The Center for Disease and Control has been warning everyone of the transmissibility of the virus, urging proper care through the practice of washing hands, wearing masks, and staying at least six feet apart. Practices to stay safe from COVID-19 have shifted throughout the pandemic, though the recommendation of constantly washing one’s hands has remained unchanged. But, what if access to clean water to partake in this practice is inaccessible? This is the reality for so many around the globe who are trying to combat the virus with access to limited resources. Water poverty coupled with a global pandemic is simply a disaster in wait.
Though the effects of the water crisis, that we have observed around the world, are already setting in. Around the globe access to safely managed drinking water is nonviable for an approximated 2.2 billion people. Meanwhile, it is estimated that 4.2 billion people do not have access to safely managed sanitation services, many of whom live in underdeveloped countries where vaccines remain inaccessible. Thus, many individuals around the globe are left to deal with COVID-19 safety precautions without the adequate resources to do so. Pandemic circumstances have brought into question the use of water and the complexities of choosing water for thirst or sanitation. This question remains awfully prevalent in the Global South where water insecurity is most unfortunate. Households are limited in the water they have access to, thus the questions to be made remain: do you save the water for drinking or handwashing? Do you send the women out to transport more water, which adversely affects income, schooltime, and rate of transmission?
Handwashing, a precautionary tool to prevent transmission, has been ill-advised in some areas, as limited access to clean water has been prioritized for other uses. The Navajo Nation has been the site of this reality. Navajo Nation faces a unique challenge as they have been facing water shortages for generations and thus have been hit by COVID-19 at unsurmountable levels. Members of the indigenous reservation recall their treks to water sources, few and far between. President Jonathan Nez of the Navajo Nation recounts, “a single spigot on a desolate road, miles from any residence, serves 900 people”(Calma). Thus, not only is water difficult to secure on Navajo land, the trek to secure clean water puts individuals at risk of transmitting the disease as individuals come in contact with one another – exposing themselves and others.
The Navajo Water Project seeks to address water insecurity as well as other systemic issues found within the reservation but has been met with many obstacles, especially the ongoing pandemic. In response to the water shortage, a short-term solution was established through the distribution of 251,856 gallons of bottled water. This quick fix, while helpful to many, still presents the community with questions to be answered about water sustainability. One member of the nation, Robin, vocalizes, “We’re told, wash your hands for 20 seconds with warm water and soap — if you don’t have running water that’s pretty hard to do. Imagine using bottled water. That’s a lot of bottled water for 20 seconds”(Calma). The reality is that solutions to water shortages need to be addressed through long-term plans that address systemic affairs and environmental sustainability – all of which will hopefully be communicated and achieved by the Navajo Water Project.
However, the issues endured by the Navajo Nation reflect the challenges faced by many around the globe. Just as the members of the Navajo Nation must voyage countless miles to retrieve clean and safe drinking water, too, must many in rural and less developed countries. This reliance on water poses the threat to maintaining social distancing practices. With the retrieval of water, individuals increase contact with others from the larger community, that they wouldn’t typically have contact with. The Nation could circumvent community spread if they were supplied with more and closely located water sources, which would minimize the number of people that rely on a single water point or minimize the number of people one would meet when retrieving water. In fact, “The process of fetching frequently involves queuing in close proximity (to avoid losing one’s place in line), and maybe contingent upon water availability if water systems are rationed”(Stoler et al). People around the world also partake in water sharing practices, a socio-cultural setting that enables virus transmission. While water has not been proven to propel COVID-19 transmission rates, the mere practice of water sharing opposes the pandemic’s protocols.
Throughout the past two years, COVID-19 has posed a threat to public health, yet its presence adjunct with an ongoing water shortage has merely heightened public concerns. The pandemic has not merely rattled an entire globe, but it has shown the necessity and urgency of bringing clean water to everyone. Acute or moderate issues are exacerbated when coupled with ongoing social problems, indicating the demand to rectify what our nations have failed to provide – including not only water security but the soundness of food, housing, and healthcare accessibility.
- Calma, Justine. “The Navajo Nation Faced Water Shortages for Generations – and Then the Pandemic Hit.” The Verge, The Verge, 6 July 2020, https://www.theverge.com/2020/7/6/21311211/navajo-nation-covid-19-running-water-access.
- Folk, Emily. “Coronavirus and Access to Clean Water.” The Ecologist, 7 Aug. 2020, https://theecologist.org/2020/aug/07/coronavirus-and-access-clean-water.
- Frank, Rene. “Can Covid-19 Accelerate Urban Water Security?” World Bank Blogs, https://blogs.worldbank.org/water/can-covid-19-accelerate-urban-water-security.
- “Global Wash Fast Facts.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 8 Dec. 2021, https://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/global/wash_statistics.html.
- Jiwani, S.S., Antiporta, D.A. Inequalities in access to water and soap matter for the COVID-19 response in sub-Saharan Africa. Int J Equity Health 19, 82 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12939-020-01199-z
- Stoler, Justin et al. “Beyond handwashing: Water insecurity undermines COVID-19 response in developing areas.” Journal of global health vol. 10,1 (2020): 010355. doi:10.7189/jogh.10.010355
- UN-Water. “Water and Sanitation: Letting Data Lead the Way: UN-Water.” UN, 25 Sept. 2019, https://www.unwater.org/water-and-sanitation-letting-data-lead-the-way/.