How to guarantee access to water and sanitation in the context of COVID-19?

In Latin America and the Caribbean, more than 65 million people do not have permanent access to clean water or soap for hand washing. Experts and decision makers from the water sector shared their experiences and solutions

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, having potable water for hygiene and an adequate and safe sanitation system are the basis of prevention. However, there are several communities in the Latin American and Caribbean region with serious challenges in these aspects, and the exchange of technicians, experts and decision makers is necessary to ensure that everyone has permanent access to this resource.

The UNESCO Intergovernmental Hydrological Program in Latin America and the Caribbean, the Pan American Health Organization, the Global Analysis and Assessment of Drinking Water and Sanitation (GLAAS - UN Water) and the regional water centres under the auspices of UNESCO, they presented the main points of their strategies.

Remarks by Ms. Lidia Brito, UNESCO Regional Director for Sciences in Latin America and the Caribbean; Mr. Marcelo Korc, Head of the PAHO / WHO Unit on Climate Change and Environmental Determinants of Health; Youssef Filali-Meknassi, Secretary of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Hydrological Program; and Mr. Oscar Cristi, National Director of Water of Chile and President of the National Committee of the IHP, outlined the main guidelines of their organizations and how all the necessary resources are available for research and field work in the fight against this pandemic.

The Global Analysis and Assessment of Drinking Water and Sanitation (GLAAS), an initiative of UN Water executed by the World Health Organization, was presented by Mrs. Patricia Segurado, of PAHO / WHO Americas. The objectives of the initiative are: to accompany and evaluate progress in water, sanitation and hygiene in all countries; identify the factors that hinder or promote the “Water and sanitation for all” of SDG 6 (especially in areas with greater vulnerability); and make a comparison between countries. GLAAS data is available on its website, through its reports.

Mr. Oscar Pinto, President of the Association of Regulatory Bodies of Water and Sanitation of the Americas (ADERASA) made a series of recommendations to address these problems, among which are:

  • Promote national policies, normative systems and specific regulations that favour sustainable human and environmental development
  • Promote accessibility to drinking water and sanitation services through a system of subsidies defined through participatory processes
  • Generate adequate information systems at the national level, which allow evaluating the state of health services and progress towards SDG 6

In order to support service providers in their decision-making, the Regional Centre on Water Security (CERSHI) for Latin America and the Caribbean in Mexico, focuses on workers in the sector. Mr. Fernando González Villareal, Director of the Centre, and Mr. Jorge Arriaga presented the objectives:

  • Identify measures to implement to guarantee the human right to water and sanitation
  • Develop protocols to protect the health of workers in the sector (measures aimed at staff and their workspaces, indications regarding the mobility and operation of the service)
  • Ensure communication and participation mechanisms used to transmit messages during the contingency

CERSHI states that planning to overcome the crisis requires rethinking the scenarios of water security so as not to leave anyone behind, with a new architecture of international agencies, more resources for the water sector, formulation of medium and long-term plans, and collaboration between key actors. Water security must be a priority on the national and international agenda, not only in times of crisis.

Mrs. Andrea Gamarra, head of Drinking Water and Sanitation of the National Water Direction of Uruguay, pointed out the Regional Experimental Centre for Sanitation Technologies (CERTS) located in Uruguay in the search to ensure adequate sanitation for all. It is an opportunity for technical exchange to find alternative sanitation solutions for small populations of less than 10,000 inhabitants and whose vulnerability is exacerbated in the context of the pandemic.

Mr. José Raúl Pérez, representative of the Center for Sustainable Management of Water Resources for the Caribbean Island States (CEHICA), in the Dominican Republic, presented the challenges in water and sanitation services in the Caribbean. Looking to the post-pandemic future, CEHICA proposes defining hygiene and protection protocols in the short term, improving measurement and monitoring, using remote sensing technology, strengthening communication and citizen education services, enriching equipment, defining strategies and development plans, contingency and personal training.

The Water Centre for Arid and Semi-Arid Zones of Latin America and the Caribbean (CAZALAC), in Chile, through its director Mr. Gabriel Mancilla, described the current scenario of arid zones, where an intensification has been identified from arid conditions and climatic uncertainty, changes in land use and degradation of basins and ecosystems, and an increase in demands and deterioration in the quality of water sources.

In this sense, the challenges to improve the coverage of access to drinking water and sanitation in these areas are:

  • Unlock bureaucratic processes
  • Plan and improve storage infrastructure
  • Intensify process control
  • Promote and demand efficiency in the use of water • Identify new water sources (desalination, rainwater collection, fog or camanchaca)
  • Improve reuse
  • Planning at the territorial level

Undoubtedly, there are many challenges, but also many are the proposals and actions that are being carried out in Latin America and the Caribbean to guarantee access to safe drinking water and sanitation in the context of COVID-19, which mark a positive path for the present of the region during the pandemic, and also for the near future.


(*) The presentations made by the speakers of the webinar "Guaranteeing access to water in the context of COVID-19 in Latin America and the Caribbean", on Thursday May 21, 2020, were taken as sources for this text.