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By Clare Brandon and Amy Edwards 29 July 2020 6 min read

Carrying water from the Bagmati River, Nepal for washing clothes and general purpose use. Photo by Dr Tanya Doody.

As Victoria records triple COVID-19 figures daily and clusters continue to be monitored in Sydney, Australians are reminded to be vigilant.

Regular hand washing, social distancing and good hygiene habits are touted through media platforms, from our own politicians and in our roles as parents and carers.

But what if these simple measures we practice to keep ourselves and our children safe were not so readily available?

CSIRO researchers believe “the fight against COVID-19 in South Asia is a fight for access to clean water”.

Water resources management expert Dr Shahriar Wahid explains the rapid spread of COVID-19 and the urgency to routinely wash our hands and disinfect surfaces has highlighted the importance of access to clean water supply for millions of people across South Asia.

“The pandemic crisis and water security are intricately connected. Unfortunately, the pandemic has exposed the limits of existing water supply infrastructure and the need for better strategies for water, sanitation and clean water for food production in these regions,” he says.

Access to clean water is not always a given

More than half of the populations of Afghanistan (59%), Bangladesh (66%) and Nepal (53%) do not have handwashing facilities with soap and water. The situation in Pakistan (39%) and India (40%) is not much better. This water crisis has been made worse by returning family members, many of whom lost jobs in foreign countries or cities. In Bangladesh alone, an estimated two million workers travelled back to villages since March 2020. This is creating a surplus labour pool in the smaller towns and villages. Governments are trying to engage this surplus labour in agriculture, causing increased water demand. As governments in the region try to address critical economic challenges, they are finding it difficult to invest in already stretched water supply infrastructure.

“The risk is a reversal of hard-fought gains to improve lives – and the overall health – of the most vulnerable throughout South Asia,” Dr Wahid says.

CSIRO water experts have been working in South Asia for two decades to help manage and improve water supply.They have already helped implement many programs under Australia’s Sustainable Development Investment Portfolio (SDIP).

Water system management is critical for urban water supply and water for food production. These terraced rice paddies on the fringe of urban areas in Nepal rely on a secure water supply. Photo by Dr Tanya Doody.

Water and COVID-19 response and recovery

Dr Wahid and his colleagues believe there are three key points for inclusive COVID-19 response and recovery over the coming years.

They are:

  • Providing clean water to households will depend on effective supply. CSIRO’s research in Pakistan and Nepal has highlighted the importance of basin management for effective water supply. For example, in Pakistan, about 170 million people living in the lower Indus plains rely on the waters of the River Indus and the associated groundwater systems for irrigation and urban water supplies. Sedimentation of major headwater storages and widespread pollution has reduced the reliability of their water supply. Around 40 per cent of all reported diseases and deaths in Pakistan are attributed to poor water quality. Worsening extremes of climate, lower rainfall, inadequate storage and increasing demand due to COVID-19 mean that the household water supply will deteriorate further unless a reliable supply is assured.
  • Groundwater management is critical for water supply to cities, smaller towns and rural households. Groundwater is the main source of water supply to many cities, smaller towns and rural households across the region. It is more reliable than surface water in terms of quantity and quality and can be accessed closer to the households. CSIRO’s research in Bangladesh and Pakistan documented evidence of depletion of groundwater resources and/or deterioration of water quality. As a result, people are facing a particularly daunting challenge to access clean, drinkable water, let alone water for handwashing and personal hygiene. For example, in Bangladesh, people living in the northwest region are facing serious domestic water shortages due to falling groundwater levels. The situation has put tremendous pressure on women as they fetch water from afar. A similar situation can be observed in Pakistan and Nepal.
  • Water data is the key for response and recovery. COVID-19 has shed new light on the importance of water data for addressing many of the pandemic’s challenges and health outcomes. A basic water information system is seen by experts as the first line of defence against pandemics. Ensuring hospitals and households have access to critical resources like water during crisis periods such as COVID-19 requires a robust water supply system. In agrarian economies such as South Asia, understanding how much water is (and will be) available for allocation over the year provides critical information to enable governments to mount a large-scale response and recovery.

Most rural households depend on groundwater as a more reliable water supply. Photo By Dr Shahriar Wahid.

Creating a more resilient future

Progress has been made in understanding the importance of water security for COVID-19 response and recovery, and what needs to be done to improve the stretched water supply situation in South Asia. Providing clean water, integrated groundwater management and provision of water data will be three critical elements to contribute to resilience. Although much is known in terms of challenges and opportunities in addressing the water and COVID-19 recovery linkages, it will take time for the countries to divert resources to address these challenges.

“We are on the right path to a more resilient future with breakthrough water research in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Afghanistan,” Dr Wahid says.

Pakistan is using surface water datasets to improve the seasonal water allocation capabilities of the Indus River System Authority (IRSA). This is done by using CSIRO’s Water Apportionment Accord tool (WAA), which helps federal and provincial agencies make more informed decisions. This can help Pakistan respond to not only the pandemic crisis, but also unexpected climatic impacts (flooding, droughts) and uneven water supplies between urban and rural areas.

In Bangladesh, the CSIRO team uncovered a set of complex relationships underlying groundwater supply and use in the northwest region. The team is well placed to inform the sustainable groundwater use by different sectors (agriculture, domestic, industrial) during and after the pandemic. Similarly, evidence and water management tools developed for the Kamala basin (Nepal) can guide water supply for millions of basin inhabitants.

Dr Wahid sums up by saying “Countries have recognised CSIRO’s expertise in sustainable ‘whole-of-the-system’ water management. We can identify hotspots of water insecurity and help governments to take stock of available water from different sources and allocate water to competing demands. This addresses the combined needs of the pandemic response and will re-start economies on a stronger footing.”

This work was funded by the DFAT and CSIRO. The full team delivering this work included: Shahriar Wahid, Susan Cuddy, Mobin Ahmad, Mohammed Mainuddin, Auro Almeida and over 30 CSIRO experts.

Further reading:

Water quality in the Ravi and Sutlej Rivers, Pakistan: a system view

Fresh Water “More Precious Than Gold” in Bangladesh

Groundwater use and rapid irrigation expansion in a changing climate: Hydrological drivers in one of the world’s food bowls

Development of a regional groundwater model for the Indus Basin Irrigation System of Pakistan: Status Report

Sindh, Punjab water share up as IRSA starts using digital tool

Evaluation of the Sustainable Development Investment Portfolio, Final Report

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