HomeRegional NewsAfricaVirtual AUW highlights: The water sector has delivered

Virtual AUW highlights: The water sector has delivered

The live webinar focused on “WASH as first line of defense against COVID-19: unpacking the African water sector response” formed part of the first ever Virtual African Utility Week and POWERGEN Africa that took place from 11-15 May.

The session focused on tackling misinformation, how water utilities can build resilience to meet the current demand and how much-needed development aid towards the *WASH sector will be affected by the COVID-19 response.

*WASH=water, sanitation and hygiene


  • Paul Yillia, Research Scholar (Water Programme), International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Austria

Panel Speakers:

  • Rose Kaggwa, Director Business and Scientific Services | National Water and Sewerage Corporation, Uganda 
  • David Onyango, Former Managing Director | Kisumu Water and Sewerage Company, Current Consultant, AFDB, Côte d’Ivoire 
  • Dhesigen Naidoo, CEO | Water Research Commission, South Africa 
  • Feleke Zewge Beshah, Associate Professor of Environmental Chemistry/Engineering | Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia

Opening up the discussion, Yillia underlined that: 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.”

He continued: “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

“There is a huge demand on the water sector as the first line of defence to make clean water available as a key part of the containment strategy,” said Naidoo, “and it has put huge pressure on the water sector and pushed us beyond our usual capacities. I am happy to say that in most parts of the world, including my own country, the water sector has delivered.

“So kudos to all our water engineers, water technicians, 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 Naidoo noted that “there are things that are coming out of this crisis that are very powerful. There is a new regionalisation project that we have not seen before in this magnitude. 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.”

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 become a network for a variety of issues in the water quality domain.

According to the 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), 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 Beshah of 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 fecal or oral route and the mechanism of survival of the virus without replication is not clear,” said Professor Beshah.

On the question of whether the virus is viable or effective in water, he said research indicates that the virus is viable in stools of COVID-19 patients for some time, but that due to current testing methods for the virus it is not possible to confirm the viability of the virus.

He explained: “you may say that COVID-19 is not an important water-borne pathogen, but we need to strengthen our testing capability to understand the viability and effectivity of the virus in the water environment.”

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.

Professor 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 Kaggwa.

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 a very strong working relationships, also with the private sector” said Kaggwa.

Pandemic’s impact on sector funding by donors

Onyango gave webinar attendees what he termed “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 programmes in individual countries.

For example, Kenya has received about $50-million to support them in the fight against COVID, Rwanda $14-million and the DRC about $50-million. The AfDB has created a rapid response facility which has $-10-billion to curb COVID 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 US$12-billion.

The G20 countries, realising the scale of this problem, have had discussions with the IMF and the World Bank, while China also announced about $154-billion in aid to deal with this problem.

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

“I also see prioritisation of countries’ national investment plans so that the issue of getting out of the recession becomes a priority. Consequently, I see a delay in achieving some of the SDG targets on water and sanitation,” he concluded.      

View the full webinar here: https://register.gotowebinar.com/register/7776478912545512206              

Annemarie Roodbol
Annemarie Roodbol is a communications practitioner based in Cape Town.