Experts came together to discuss tackling misinformation, building resilience to meet the current demand from water utilities, and developing much-needed aid towards the water, sanitation, and health (WASH) sector, which will be affected by the COVID-19 response.

This article first appeared in ESI Africa Issue 3-2020.
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A live webinar focusing on WASH as a first line of defence against COVID-19 and unpacking the African water sector response, formed part of the first-ever Virtual African Utility Week and POWERGEN Africa in May this year.

“The current global public health crisis as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic, has brought some light to the importance of improving sanitation, hygiene and access to clean water,” said session moderator Paul Yillia, Research Scholar (Water Programme), International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Austria.

“With the WHO strongly recommending frequent hand washing with soap and water as the first line of defence, both residential and healthcare facilities are experiencing increased water use and demand with pressure, of course, growing on service providers to meet this increasing demand. So, suddenly we are seeing in Africa that water service providers, especially in cities and big towns, are facing some additional new challenges on how the pandemic will impact fresh water management as a whole but also how it could affect sanitation facilities in service provision.”

 Partnerships strengthened by pandemic

“I am happy to say that in most parts of the world, including my own country, the water sector has delivered,” said Dhesigen Naidoo, CEO of South Africa’s Water Research Commission. “So kudos to all our water engineers, water technicians and our water community all over this continent. Their sheer dedication is appreciated.”

Asked if the lockdown procedures in most countries had affected global water professionals’ partnerships and exchange programmes, he said: “Africans are talking to Africans all over this continent in a way we have not done until now. This new mechanism, this new need to be able to communicate and share information very quickly, and the virtual tools that are available to us, have enabled us to do that.”

Water service providers … are facing additional new challenges on how the pandemic will impact fresh water management as a whole…

He also mentioned that there were several mega-projects in the pipeline “that are going to change the future of water around this continent. The first one I want to highlight is the Wastewater Surveillance Project. This will not only be a surveillance tool for COVID-19, but will also become a network for a variety of issues in the water quality domain.”

According to Naidoo, “the nature of the circumstance that has organised for us all to be in a continental and global lockdown, has enabled us to initiate a catalysis of the Fourth Industrial Revolution for Africa. Also, if we look at COVID-19 in the right kind of way, we can use this crisis to accelerate the SDGs [sustainable development goals], and we can fit and make real the UN 2030 Agenda.”

Can water transmit COVID-19?

“The confirmed potential transmission routes of COVID-19 of respiratory and contact are well understood, but there are additional concerns that aerosol droplets are also a possible route of transmission,” stated Prof Feleke Zewge Beshah, Associate Professor of Environmental Chemistry/Engineering at Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa University, adding that research from the Netherlands, China, US and Australia indicate that the virus may persist for some time in water, faeces, sweat and on surfaces, but that it cannot replicate in a water environment outside a host’s tissue. “However, it is not yet known whether the virus can be transmitted via the faecal or oral route and the mechanism of survival of the virus without replication is not clear.”

With regards to the effectiveness of wastewater and wastewater treatment processes in killing the COVID-19, he said conventional and advanced water treatment processes such as disinfection, coagulation, filtration etc. are expected to kill the Coronavirus. He said, however, that their effectiveness, specifically on the COVID-19 and other Coronaviruses, has not been well studied.

Prof Beshah concluded that “we need to take some precautionary measures to ensure that all water for human consumption is at least properly disinfected and to ensure that wastewater and fecal sludge are properly collected and disinfected before being discharged, and strengthen research and development capacity.”

Water utilities’ resilience

“Over the last two months, when the pandemic hit Africa, utilities have woken up to the fact that we needed to be in seventh gear,” stated Rose Kaggwa, Director Business and Scientific Services at the National Water and Sewerage Corporation of Uganda.

She said when utilities and municipalities were faced with the lockdown, their supply areas were shifted because offices, institutions and schools were closed and people were at home, so the shift was from commercial to domestic while the industrial demand decreased. The utility is also faced with challenges of people who are unable to pay for services because they are out of work or are refusing to pay and are postponing their payment of water until later.

“What has emerged clearly is the issue of partnerships and strong relationships with key stakeholders and this varies from country to country between municipalities and utilities. We have found that there is a need for very strong working relationships, also with the private sector,” said Kaggwa.

Pandemic’s impact on sector funding by donors

David Onyango, former MD of Kenya’s Kisumu Water and Sewerage Company and currently a consultant for the African Development Bank, gave webinar attendees what he called “a taste of the waters in the development world” and provided an overview of the financial and fiscal repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic on the continent.

“Africa’s GDP is expected to fall by about 4.5% and we are expecting the first recession in 25 years. The projected downturn will have an effect on traditional sources of funds, which are usually Western Europe and the US, which provided aid in the form of grants.

It is expected that the squeeze now will affect the scale of support to the aid programmes that the continent receives in the form of concessions and grants, and more resources will be directed towards the health sector to deal with the pandemic.”

Thus far, he said, the World Bank had created an Emergency Support Fund of about $160 billion for the next 15 months, deferred certain projects and redeployed resources to target COVID-related programmes in individual countries. For example, Kenya has received about $50 million to support it in the fight against the pandemic, Rwanda $14 million and the DRC about $50 million. The AfDB has created a rapid response facility which has $10 billion to curb COVID-19 in formal grants and loans to support sovereign operations and the private sector.

Other funding includes the EU, through Team Europe, making available about $15 billion and the AFT Development Agency, very active in Francophone Africa, putting forward about $12 billion. The G20 countries, realising the scale of this problem, have had discussions with the IMF and the World Bank, while China has also pledged about $154 billion in aid to deal with the crisis.

What will the impact of this be on the water sector? Onyango expects that new donor support programmes will be delayed and existing programmes restructured, to focus more resources on COVID-19. ESI

WEBINAR RECORDINGS

Hosted in collaboration with ESI Africa, you have free access to all the Virtual African Utility Week and POWERGEN Africa webinar session recordings at www.esi-africa.com/webinar-calendar

Diarise

All the key elements of the power, energy and water sectors will be addressed at the African Utility Week and POWERGEN Africa conference on 24-26 November in Cape Town. Register your participation at www.african-utility-week.com #AUW2020 #PGAF2020