Nepal | September 29, 2020

Multiple-Use Water System to control COVID-19

Alok Rajouria
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Sajpani, a quiet village in Surkhet district, used to be an oxymoron – while pani featured prominently in its name, the village had no water. Girls and women hauled water up from a river, an hour-long, back-breaking daily chore. Water was, thus, a scarce resource, with priority going to drinking, cooking and sanitation, while rationed quantities went for livestock and reused water for the kitchen garden.

Three years ago, the village got transformed: every house had piped water in abundance for both domestic and productive uses. Plenty of water for sanitation and hygiene meant improved health. Women, freed from their water-fetching chores, could tend to their plots of land that teemed with healthy seasonal vegetables. Plastic greenhouses equipped with drip irrigation systems nurtured off-season vegetables that improved the nutrition of family members and increased the household income. And no thirsty livestock traipsed around the village. Behind this seemingly magical transformation was something quite simple, commonly known as MUS.

A Multiple-Use Water System (MUS), despite its uninspiring acronym, embodies low-cost, life-changing, and now during the COVID-19 pandemic, life-saving capability for a community. A MUS is generally composed of a water tank to serve as a reservoir for drinking and domestic use, and a second tank for irrigation that collects water overflowing from the first, thereby facilitating multiple uses. Gravity-run MUS pipes distribute water from a source, such as a spring located on a higher ground, and the system is relatively less expensive than lifting water uphill from a source below, such as a river or groundwater.

The importance of access to safe water and hygiene facilities during times of disease outbreaks like the COVID-19 cannot be overemphasised. The World Health Organisation (WHO) advisory against transmission of the corona virus includes “frequent and proper hand hygiene.” The WHO further recognises co-benefits of improved Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) practices in preventing other communicable diseases. Likewise, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) underlines the importance of hand washing and hygiene practices to break the transmission of the virus. UNICEF, however, also highlights the concern that for three billion people around the world, basic water and soap facilities for hand washing are out of reach.

Lack of safe running water is one of the main barriers for many Nepali households in complying with the recommended 20-second hand washing and proper hygiene practices. With only 25 per cent of rural water supply systems fully functional, access to water is often contested, and as with any resource in short supply, it is largely tied to wealth and power. But a pandemic like COVID-19 brings to light the significance of universal access to safe water – only the wealthy washing their hands will not insulate them from catching the virus. To help stop the transmission, all must practise hand hygiene. When a household, unfortunately, has to depend on water carried in from long distances, water use is prioritised, and needs for sanitation and hygiene may be compromised, putting everyone’s health at risk.

The health benefits of MUS through better WASH facility and improved nutrition have been well documented. Such benefits are mostly of a preventive nature, resulting in reduction of morbidity and mortality through the control of water-borne diseases and overall improved health. In the book, Climbing the Water Ladder, author Barbara van Koppen recognises MUS as a way of reducing child mortality by enhancing heath and income for childcare. The author further links better health to water-related livelihood dimensions of higher productivity and increased income.

The scale of global economic toll of the pandemic has yet to be ascertained, but the collapse of the tourism sector and reduction in remittance income are certain to hit low-income countries. With remittances contributing over 25 per cent to Nepal’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), Nepal’s fragile economy will be seriously impacted. As livelihood options disappear and unemployment escalates, the economic condition of the majority, but especially of poor and disadvantaged groups, will sharply decline.

When a multiple use water supply system is introduced in a water scarce area, livelihood options improve. A recent study in western Nepal, undertaken by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) on the institutionalisation of MUS, showed that income from the sale of seasonal and off-season vegetables ranged from Rs 10,000 to Rs. 500,000 per year per household. Besides irrigation, MUS enables households to engage in other income-generating enterprises, such as animal husbandry, poultry, fishery, biogas and other small-scale productive activities.

Multiple use water systems have been promoted largely by international organisations and donors in Nepal since the early 2000s as an appropriate technology, which is affordable and locally maintainable. Hundreds of these systems, run by gravity or electric water pumps, are serving communities living in water-scarce locations. While the numerous socio-economic benefits in health and nutrition, food security, livelihoods, education and social empowerment have been documented, MUS is yet to be fully endorsed and widely incorporated in government plans, policies and budget. Incorporation of MUS has so far been limited to local water use master plans and harmonised local adaptation plans of action.

By now it is well known that hand washing and WASH facilities are critical in checking the transmission of the corona virus. As immediate and long-term responses to the pandemic are rolled out, the potential role of MUS in controlling the transmission of the virus and improving people’s livelihoods must be recognised, and installation of MUS, where technically feasible, included as part of the response.

Rajouria is a researcher at International Water Management Institute

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