Nepal | January 24, 2021

COVID-19, Handwashing, and Access to Water

Manita Raut and Alok Rajouria
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As the lockdown in Nepal is gradually relaxed, a proportionate increase in COVID-19 cases have emerged. Preventive measures for COVID-19 initially prescribed assume greater importance now more than ever. Handwashing, one of the key globally accepted directives, needs to be reiterated. However, this simplistic prescription masks the complex socioeconomic dynamics behind access to water.

In Nepal, water has an imminent role to play in the immediate control of and recovery from the impacts of COVID-19. However, in a country where only 25 percent of water supply systems are fully functional, and 3.5 million people still do not have access to basic water services, practising the recommended frequent 20 seconds of handwashing is difficult for many. Inequitable access to water, like other resources, is socio-economically driven – economically poor and historically discriminated-against and disadvantaged groups fare the worst.

In a three-year research project funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) Water for Women fund, the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) is also investigating how access to water is linked to wealth and power particularly by examining gender and social dynamics in the functionality of water supply systems in Sarlahi and Dailekh districts. Our findings show that Dailekh and Sarlahi differ significantly in water access challenges because of the distinct nature of water sources and inherent contextual realities.

In Dailekh, where traditionally community-managed water sources for both domestic and productive uses were the norm, an increasing trend of private connections to water sources is noted among wealthier households. Frequent disruptions to water supply systems is diverting users from community managed sources to install their own private lines. The Government of Nepal permits utilisation of water source such as springs only through community group registration.

However, some households with wealth and influence capturing nearby water sources while restricting access for others was noted.  Even for community water systems which are functioning well, distribution issues including difficulties in collecting tariffs, social discrimination and limited affordability render meeting the United Nations target to leave no one behind far-fetched. For example, a woman from a migrant household whose husband was away was barred from using a water source that had been captured and controlled by a village elite.

In Sarlahi, the context is different. With groundwater as the primary source for domestic use, the quality of water is a major concern.  Safe drinking water can be accessed usually below 150-feet underground, but the hand pumps most households use are at less than the recommended depth, supplying water laced with iron and arsenic. Safe water, therefore, continues to elude low income households that are compelled to depend on unsafe shallow hand pumps. Most poor households access water of better quality using the few available public hand pumps.

For many, especially low-income groups like the Musahars, the lack of large water containers to store water at home means women are compelled to make many trips each day to fetch water. These women are putting themselves at risk of infection by using common hand pumps, ironically, to get water, the very basic substance that helps to prevent transmission of the virus.

These issues related to water and communities are not new, and many of these challenges to inclusive and universal access to water did not originate with the pandemic. Instead, COVID-19 has further exposed and brought to the forefront gaps in water access. These are not unidimensional issues and addressing them demands a multi-dimensional approach.

Now the big question is how do we do this? Further, how do we ensure access to safe handwashing is fulfilled as a basic need rather than a privilege in the larger Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) agenda and COVID-19 response? The answer is simple but requires a concerted effort and collaborative response from all three tiers of the government as well as non-government actors.

The response to the pandemic in most districts has been provisional at best. While the onslaught of the disease was sudden, by now, the basics such as inclusive guidelines and standard operational procedures (SOP) could have been circulated at least at the municipality level. SOPs and guidelines help to make operations efficient and socially inclusive.

Rural municipalities and ward offices, based at the local level, with contextual understanding of local realities, are best suited to lead the response. They have the authority to set local priorities and allocate budget to address WASH challenges different sections of communities face, including women, and vulnerable groups such as persons with disabilities, the elderly, and the economically marginalised.

Moreover, local governments, with support from provincial and federal governments, will be in a better position to increase investments in inclusive WASH, not just during pandemics, but for long-term health and well-being of their constituents. To reduce haphazard and fragmented interventions, a mechanism to forge coordination between government and non-government actors needs to be devised.

Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6, which is about ensuring access to water and sanitation for all, endorses a systemic approach to achieve the goal. WASH system strengthening is about improving the environment into which WASH services and behaviours are introduced to ensure they continue to deliver benefits to everyone in society long after implementation. For Nepal, this means working in a collaborative way, addressing inclusive WASH challenges, and especially focusing on vulnerabilities of certain sections of our society.

To conclude, the ramifications of COVID-19 on the water sector have brought to light long standing equity dimensions that affect the prescribed universal practice of frequent handwashing. There is an urgent need to unpack overly simplified solutions and come up with practical approaches for affordable, sustainable and inclusive WASH services.

Raut and Rajouria are researchers at the International Water Management Institute

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