COVID-19 and Scarcity of Water

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness that can spread from person to person. The virus presents with symptoms of fever, coughing and shortness of breath, and can lead to complications such as pneumonia in both lungs, multi-organ failure, and in some cases death. The COVID-19 has indeed been devastating for the whole world on almost every level.


The United Nations warns that the current global water infrastructure is at a greater risk than COVID-19.  Here is a fact – more than half the global population (Global Population 7.76 billion) lacking access to safe managed sanitation which is the result of decades of chronic underfunding of water infrastructure.  It is putting many countries at worse risk in the COVID-19 crisis.

It is recognized that good hygiene – soap and water – are the first line of defence against COVID-19 and a vast range of other diseases, yet three quarters of households in developing countries do not have access to somewhere to wash with soap and water, according to Tim Wainwright, chief executive of the charity Water Aid. A third of healthcare facilities in developing countries also lack access to clean water on site. 

Here are some more facts:

  1. 2 out of 5 people or 3 billion people around the world lack basic handwashing facilities at home: 1.6 billion have limited facilities lacking soap or water, and 1.4 billion have no facility at all;
  2. Nearly three quarters of the population of Least Developed Countries lack handwashing facilities with soap and water;
  3. Nearly 900 million children worldwide lack a basic hygiene service at their school;
  4. Some 297,000 children – more than 800 every day – under five die annually from diarrheal diseases due to poor sanitation, poor hygiene, or unsafe drinking water;
  5. Children younger than age 5 in countries experiencing protracted conflict are 20 times more likely to die from causes linked to unsafe water and sanitation than from direct violence;
  6. 1 million deaths each year are associated with unclean births. Infections account for 26 percent of neonatal deaths and 11 percent of maternal mortality;
  7. Hygiene promotion is the most cost effective health intervention; and
  8. Universal access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation and hygiene would reduce the global disease burden by 10 percent. 

Water scarcity affects every continent and was listed in 2019 by the World Economic Forum as one of the largest global risks in terms of potential impact over the next decade.

Focusing on the importance of freshwater, World Water Day is celebrated on March 22nd every year since 1993.  World Water Day raises awareness of the 2.2 billion people around the world living without access to safe water. It is also about taking action to tackle the global water crisis.  The idea for this international day goes back to 1992, the year in which the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro took place. That same year, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution by which 22 March of each year was declared World Day for Water, to be observed starting in 1993.

GLOBAL WATER SCARCITY. Source: The Standard Digital

Water scarcity means shortage in availability due to physical deficiency, or scarcity in access due to the failure of institutions to ensure a regular supply or due to a lack of adequate infrastructure.  Water use has been growing globally at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century, and an increasing number of regions are reaching the limit at which water services can be sustainably delivered, especially in arid regions.


Inadequate sanitation is also a problem for 2.4 billion people—they are exposed to diseases, such as cholera and typhoid fever, and other water-borne illnesses. Two million people, mostly children, die each year from diarrheal diseases alone.  Many of the water systems that keep ecosystems thriving and feed a growing human population have become stressed. Rivers, lakes and aquifers are drying up or becoming too polluted to use. More than half the world’s wetlands have disappeared. Agriculture consumes more water than any other source and wastes much of that through inefficiencies. Climate change is altering patterns of weather and water around the world, causing shortages and droughts in some areas and floods in others.

The reality is that water covers 70 percent of the planet which gives an impression that it will always be plentiful. However, freshwater – containing water that is not salty which we drink, bath in, irrigate our farm fields with – is incredibly rare. In fact only 3 percent of the world’s water is fresh water, and two-thirds of that is tucked away in frozen glaciers or otherwise unavailable for our use.

Here is an explanation.  It is true that the hydrologic cycle, the process in which the earth circulates water throughout its ecosystems, is a closed-loop cycle that neither adds nor takes away water. In theory, the amount of water on earth will always remain the same. The problem therein is when the hydrologic cycle is disrupted and water which normally gets distributed to a certain area no longer does so. This is precisely why some regions are becoming arid while others are experiencing flooding and other natural disasters.

According to World Water Reserve, here are the following 10 critical water scarcity facts. Each fact is supported with a hyperlink which navigates to additional information:

  1. By 2025, half of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas;
  2. The World’s population will raise to 9.7 Billion by 2050, leaving much in water-stressed conditions;
  3. Three in Ten people on Earth currently do not have access to safe and clean water;
  4. One in Three people worldwide do not have access to a toilet;
  5. 1.6 Million people die every year from waterborne diseases;
  6. Water Privatization causes more harm than good to the region which the water is taken from;
  7. In the US, 2.1 Trillion gallons of clean water is lost each year due to poor infrastructure;
  8. Women Walk an average distance of 4 miles every day just to fetch water that is likely contaminated;
  9. One-Third of the world’s largest aquifers are water-stressed; and
  10. Meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for the Water Crisis will Cost $114 Billion per year.

The global climate crisis is inextricably linked to water. Climate change increases variability in the water cycle, inducing extreme weather events, reducing the predictability of water availability, affecting water quality and threatening sustainable development and biodiversity worldwide.

Source: EcoWatch

Growing demand for water increases the need for energy-intensive water pumping, transportation, and treatment, and has contributed to the degradation of critical water-dependent carbon sinks such as peatlands. And, some climate change mitigation measures, such as the expanded use of biofuels, can further exacerbate water scarcity.

There is a need for investment in improved hydrological data, institutions and governance, education and capacity development, risk assessment and knowledge sharing. Policies need to ensure the representation, participation, behavioral change and accountability of all stakeholders, including the private sector and civil society. Adaptation plans need to incorporate targeted strategies that assist lower-income populations – those who are disproportionately affected by climate change impacts – to navigate new conditions.


One possible source for renewed investment in water is through a better understanding of the links between water issues and water infrastructure and the climate crisis, according to the UN World Water Development Report 2020, published on March 22, 2020.

While trillions in investment have been poured into reducing greenhouse gas emissions around the world in the last decade, through clean energy and low-carbon technology, few resources have been devoted to the water supply. This year’s UN water report has found that opportunities are being missed to use water projects to cut greenhouse gas emissions while improving access to clean water.


Sewage treatment is a clear example: wastewater gives rise to between 3 percent and 7 percent of all greenhouses gas emissions globally, more than flying. Processing sewage can turn wastewater from a source of carbon to a source of clean energy, if the methane is captured and used in place of natural gas. Currently, between 80 percent and 90 percent of wastewater around the world is discharged to the environment with no treatment.

Farming methods can also be adapted to use water more efficiently and cut carbon at the same time, because when soils are better managed they hold more organic matter, more carbon and more water – rendering them more fertile as well as sequestering greenhouse gases.


That makes investing in water a “win-win-win”, in terms of improving people’s lives, generating economic growth and helping to cut carbon, the report found.

Here is another perspective. Carbon dioxide emissions are down across the globe, most significantly in places where industries are shuttering. The Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air reported the lockdown in China cut the country’s carbon emissions by 25 per cent, or 200 megatons of CO2, because of a reduction in things like coal burning, oil refining and airline traffic.

Not suggesting in any way that this COVID-19 pandemic is a good thing.  However, Marshall Burke, at Stanford University has estimated that the reduction in air pollution in China may have saved many more lives than were actually lost in the pandemic.  He further stated: “What we are seeing are very significant reductions not only in carbon emissions, but in air pollutants.”

A few weeks ago, NASA published striking satellite images of the massive reduction in air pollution (specifically, NO2) over China resulting from the economic slow-down in that country following its aggressive response to COVID-19.

Source: NASA

Separate analyses indeed found that ground-based concentrations of key pollutants — namely PM2.5 — fell substantially across much of the country.  These reductions were not uniform.  In northern cities such as Beijing, where much of wintertime pollution comes from winter heating, reductions were absent.  But in more southern cities such as Shanghai and Wuhan where wintertime pollution is mainly from cars and smaller industry, pollution declines appeared to be dramatic.

Given the huge amount of evidence that breathing dirty air contributes heavily to premature mortality, a natural — if admittedly strange — question is whether the lives saved from this reduction in pollution caused by economic disruption from COVID-19 exceeds the death toll from the virus itself.  Even under very conservative assumptions, the answer is a clear “yes”.

Kanata, Ontario, Canada 1 April 2020