Water: A Matter of Survival in the World of Pandemics

Water: A Matter of Survival in the World of Pandemics

Originally posted by Inter Press Service, published 1 July 2021.
Author: Guillaume Baggio, Manzoor Qadir and Vladimir Smakhtin from the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment & Health (UNU-INWEH)
Cover photo: UNICEF/Safidy Andrianantenain: A woman in Madagascar walks for up to 14km a day to find clean water.


The COVID-19 pandemic has undeniably amplified the existing vulnerabilities of billions of people worldwide. Marginalized communities in developing countries were excluded from social protection and support.

Long-standing economic and social inequalities have deepened with the poor getting poorer. A sharp divide in the distribution of vaccines has revealed major issues in the global health sector.

Economic stimulus packages amounting to about $10 trillion were assembled in a matter of months — a much larger sum than what governments invested when the 2008 financial crisis struck. Yet, progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have largely decelerated.

In fact, the pandemic has made many of the goals literally unachievable in the time left to 2030.

Progress towards SDG 6 — Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all — is among the goals most suffering. The world at large was already off track on this before the pandemic.

An estimated 2 billion and 3.6 billion people still live without access to safely managed water supplies and sanitation respectively. Funds needed to tackle this immense challenge were estimated in 2016 to be US $74–166 billion annually until 2030.

They have never been raised, and now, likely, more is needed. Instead, due to the pandemic, water funding is now projected to decrease.

The cost of meeting other SDG 6 targets – beyond just universal water supply and sanitation – is not included in the above. With attention turning now to post-pandemic economic recovery plans, the question is: where and how do we get the money needed to achieve SDG 6 in the final nine years of the SDG era if we continuously failed to do so in the first six?

Recently initiated acceleration frameworks create some hope, and yet it is difficult to be particularly optimistic.

As we face unresolved global water challenges, the COVID-19 pandemic, while detrimental in itself already, might be a prelude to more threatening events. The world needs to get used to and prepare for “living with pandemics”, as the risk of infectious diseases now competes side by side with the risk of our failure to act on climate change.

New infectious diseases may increase in the next decades not the least due to continuing uncontrolled human destruction of ecosystems. Next pandemics could bring even higher mortality rates or as yet unimaginable human health impacts.

In this context, providing safe water and sanitation, and ensuring healthy freshwater ecosystems are no longer matters of just basic needs, human rights or dignity. They are the matters of survival for all. Strategic actions are required now rather than waiting for the next pandemic episodes.

Countries will likely have little choice other than addressing multiple development challenges simultaneously. Yet, from the standpoint of preparing for future pandemics, further prioritization of those challenges needs to be made.

In the global water sector, there are several items that may need to receive priority in the next nine SDG years:

The above challenges have a lot in common. All are explicitly human-centric and target the most vulnerable; hence they are critical to address if we are serious about leaving no one behind. All of them, if addressed, will alleviate the impact of future pandemics.

All contribute to SDG 6 targets on universal water supply and sanitation. All have strong links with other important SDGs, e.g. you cannot eradicate a source of refugees without ensuring peace, political stability and arresting environmental degradation.

And all are implicit within the current SDG targets. Achieving the above milestones may not be enough for universal access to water and sanitation, but they will still be unprecedented achievements in modern history.

Arresting the degradation of freshwater ecosystems – to alleviate the probability of future pandemics -also needs to be made much stronger. Although some relevant processes are on the way, they may turn out to be too lengthy to be effective.

Overall, the COVID-19 pandemic suggests that revisiting and articulating priorities in the ongoing SDG efforts may be in order. With almost 170 targets, the SDG framework, while comprehensive, is perhaps too ambitious for a rather short period.

And it is not just the matter of periodic assessment of the SDG progress, but also the matter of adjusting the targets; particularly when many original ones were blurred and when new major factors like pandemics recently reshaped the world. There are things that just can no longer wait. Fixing at least some of the world’s most chronic water problems is one of them.


Guillaume Baggio is Research Associate, Manzoor Qadir is Assistant Director, and Vladimir Smakhtin is the Director at the UN University’s Canadian-based Institute for Water, Environment and Health, which is supported by the Government of Canada and hosted at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario. The Institute marks its 25th anniversary in 2021.