By Kariuki Mugo, Director of WASH Sector Support
The global WASH sector has laudably responded to the Covid-19 pandemic. Most of the actions have been in supporting the public health domain in handwashing with soap by way of ensuring adequate water is available in most households.
There has also been a great deal of investment in ensuring that water is available to all, especially the most vulnerable in cities, where lockdowns have been enforced. The poor have a different level of vulnerability in the sense that majority, if not all of them, depend on daily wages. The moment human movement is restricted, it immediately curtails their cash flow and as a result, denies them the opportunity to afford basic needs such as water supplied by vendors and pay-per-use public sanitation.
Despite these praiseworthy responses by WASH service institutions, this epidemic has made us realise that we do not have the right mechanisms for any form of emergencies in the sector. Traditionally, our systems are designed for normal conditions and not to respond to emergencies such as flooding, hunger, and war. These situations are usually localised and responded to by independent state and global bodies and not service providers.
However, there has been no known humanity crisis like Covid-19 in our generation, one that permeates nearly every facet of our existence. It is therefore not a surprise that the WASH sector, just like many others, was caught flat-footed by this pandemic. The situation has been of helplessness, the same case like everywhere else in terms of response.
Now that we seem to have somehow figured out the immediate actions to save lives and sustain a basic level of access to services, we need to envision what could have been done to better prepare for such circumstances. This becomes the immediate area of attention for the WASH sector to focus on, and the following are some suggestions.
Structure Mandates and Coordination Mechanisms for Institutions
Institutional overlaps in the hygiene and sanitation sectors is a common occurrence in developing nations. Lack of clarity in mandates lead to either duplication or lapse of service provision. There is usually a level of unseen competition, especially in areas deemed to be well resourced by governments and donors, and abandonment of others that are difficult and less lucrative. The latter is usually the case for provision of services to the poor, and more so, onsite sanitation and basic hygiene services.
One of the evident and significant struggles in our programme countries is how various governmental bodies have struggled to respond on their own, as well as to rally support from stakeholders. This situation has clearly shown that it is the high time governments figured out how WASH institutions can effectively and efficiently work together not only to respond to humanitarian crises, but also in the day-to-day provision of services.
There is need for policymakers to rethink how institutions are structured and coordinated to enable clarity of responsibilities and allocation of resources, and as a result, reducing overlap and competition, and enhancing efficiency and collaboration in service provision at all times.
Develop Responsive Policy and Legal Frameworks
There is no doubt that the WASH sector lacks the relevant policies, laws, and regulations to govern response to crisis. The fact that the sector is designed to provide services to the population under normal economic conditions, any change in circumstances exerts undue stress to the systems, structures, and available resources. Besides, new, improved ways of working can only work if the existing policies and laws are repealed and this can often be challenging to implement.
Proper policies, laws and regulations will, for sure, enable WASH institutions to be in a better place to respond to emergencies and sustain services to a reasonable level. It is therefore imperative that governments draft statutes to better harmonize sanitation and hygiene institutions. This structured coordination is critical in such emergencies and is lacking in most countries.
Besides, hygiene has been a silent component in WASH service provision. Historically, most hygiene interventions have been mainly short-term campaigns without any meaningful infrastructure investment and sustainability mechanisms. This failure to position hygiene as a critical public health driver emanates from the fact that WASH sector policies do not consider the need for its investment and as a crucial responsibility of service providers. Now that Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated the value of hygiene in saving lives, policies and regulations must be reviewed to reposition its place in the sector.
Structure Mechanisms for Full Utility Cost-Recovery During Emergencies
Utilities’ response to the crisis, in countries such as Ghana and Kenya, has mainly been the provision of free water in the short-term. This act of benevolence is commendable. But without any doubt, non-reimbursement by governments will usher in a more severe crisis of operational sustainability in the medium and long terms.
To begin with, low-income people living in unserved areas cannot afford to pay for services when directly provided by utilities during emergencies. Since they lack daily income and primarily depend on informal vendors and on-demand payments. The utilities, on the other hand, lack mechanisms for deferring non-customer payments and subsequent collection of revenues for services provided during the lockdowns. This situation, in addition to undue political pressure, has forced them to extensively provide free water during this pandemic.
The low levels of financial cost recovery mean that the service providers will soon experience a struggle to meet their fundamental recurrent obligations, thus further leading to a deterioration of services.
There is, therefore, a need to develop frameworks for enabling full cost-recovery support mechanisms for WASH service provision institutions while undertaking acts of emergency response for vulnerable populations. This is what is done for other sectors that typically intervene during humanitarian crises.
Ensure Equitable Access to Basic Urban Services (Leave No One Behind)
The curtailment of movement during lockdowns means that people are confined in spaces that generate a high level of service provision demand that is never experienced in regular periods. The need for water in low incomes areas is never high through days and nights, and as a result, utilities are finding it difficult to respond to this unusual condition.
Most importantly, this crisis has brought out the need for having arrangements to provide basic services to all those living in urban areas. The fact that the poor cannot access basic goods and services has made it impossible for most developing world governments to enforce lockdowns in low income urban and peri-urban areas.
This not only demonstrates how inequality inhibits the response to a public health emergency but also clearly tells that governments cannot respond to any other form of disasters in cities by way of broadly restricting human movement in low-income areas. It is a clear indication that inequality in access to basic urban goods and services leads to administrative incapability. Needless to say, inability to enforce a total lockdown in a segment of the population during Covid-19 outbreak indicates powerlessness to fully govern citizens in crisis situations.
This security red flag should serve as a serious wake-up call all governments to focus on providing services and ensuring economic empowerment of all their city populations, particularly the poor. If they do, it will improve the likelihood that in times of emergencies, people’s basic needs are met. In turn, this will make it easier to implement the necessary disaster responses across all of their people, speeding up recovery and a return to normality.