As the world adjusts day by day to the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, research findings from the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment have driven home the importance of smart water and wastewater utilities across the globe. The presence of the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) in Dutch wastewater outflows and Treatment plants, flushed down the toilet by infected people, is a useful way for researchers to chart whether the disease is present in specific populations – a strategy that has been used for other viruses in the past. However, the fact that SARS-CoV-2 can persist in wastewater signals a larger worry for populations around the world that lack the facilities and protocols in place in the Netherlands. These uncommon times highlight inequalities in access to safe water and sanitation that are, unfortunately, quite common.
With whole economies coming to a halt, greenhouse gas emissions have stalled. But this does not mean climate action should be put on hold during the present crisis triggered by COVID-19. In the longer term, we don’t need to choose between the health of people and the health of the planet. Smarter systems, such as those advocated by WaCCliM, can easily serve both. When a resource-constrained utility is able to increase water and energy efficiency by replacing old pumps or fixing leaking pipes, it can also extend water and sanitation access to more households at a lower operating cost, and boost their resilience to the challenges posed by diseases such as COVID-19. Similarly, better wastewater treatment that prevents contamination and disease transmission can also enable a drastic reduction in the greenhouse gas emissions that otherwise seep out of untreated wastewater.
WaCCliM pilot utilities have proven that cross-sectoral results can be achieved by interventions in the water and sanitation sector. For example, two utilities serving San Francisco del Rincón, Mexico, the Wastewater Treatment and Deposition Service (SITRATA) and San Francisco Drinking Water and Sewage System (SAPAF), have together achieved emissions reductions that are equivalent to planting 12,400 trees every year – and they have done it by expanding wastewater treatment coverage from less than half of their city to more than 80%, making San Francisco del Rincón cleaner, safer and greener all at once.
The governments and water ministries with whom we partner have their own essential roles to play: expanding desperately needed water and sanitation access; adapting systems to climate risks that threaten shortages or water contamination; and enabling utilities to shrink their carbon footprints. Understanding the linkages between sectors through the challenges and solutions to health crises such as COVID-19 involves recognising that individual precautions are important, but we also need systems that can sustain communities in the long term.
Finally, the crisis has put one other old truism in a new perspective: that water connects everyone. Water ties people together in health, in vulnerability, and not least in responsibility. At WaCCliM, we are proud to give water and wastewater utilities the tools to make those connections work for the common good, both at this crucial time and far into the future.