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Water is a public health imperative

The COVID-19 crisis has reminded us all of the important role that water plays in public health. The megaphones blaring through the streets of Addis Ababa tell us every day: exercise social distancing, use personal protective equipment and wash your hands.

Unfortunately, this crisis has also been a stark reminder that far too many Ethiopians do not have adequate access to water. This water access gap undermines our ability to prevent, and recover from, the spread of COVID-19. Beyond the current health crisis, this gap contributes to devastating health impacts and the stagnation of economic development.

However, this moment has also shown our ability to mobilize around a common purpose. Thus, in pursuit of public health and broader sustainable development goals, we are calling for the water sector community in Ethiopia and international partners to recommit to mobilizing resources and coordinating efforts in three areas: water and sanitation access for all, ensuring continuity and sustainability of urban water supply and enhanced preparedness for future shocks. These efforts should be an ongoing priority during COVID-19 recovery but also for subsequent economic stimulus packages, so we might build toward a more water secure and resilient Ethiopia.

Water and sanitation access for all

Access to water and sanitation has steadily improved in recent years. Nearly 65 percent of households in Ethiopia now have access to improved water supply, according to data from the Ministry of Water, Irrigation and Energy (MoWIE). However, despite these improvements, UNICEF also reports that 60-80 percent of communicable diseases in Ethiopia are still attributable to limited access to safe water and inadequate sanitation and hygiene services. While the prevalence of stunting and malnutrition has decreased over the past decade, about 38 percent of children under age five are stunted and 10 percent wasted, according to USAID. The burden of these diseases is extensive: lack of access to clean water and sanitation can increase the risk of water-borne and communicable diseases, cause stunting and negatively impact a person’s education and lifetime earnings potential.

Together with local and international development partners, MoWIE is working to extend water access during the COVID-19 crisis. MoWIE and partners have mobilized resources to improve water supply at critical locations; coordinated continuously among regional government and city administration water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) actors; and encouraged greater private sector involvement in combating COVID-19. This effort extends to trucking water into some neighborhoods and public places, such as bus stations, to supply handwashing stations.

There is a pressing need to continue to mobilize resources to boost water access during the COVID-19 crisis, building upon existing efforts. Simultaneously, we must recommit to investing in long-term solutions for safe water and sanitation.

Ensuring the continuity and sustainability of urban water supply

Cities are hotspots for COVID-19 due to the density and mobility of urban communities. In addition to water connection gaps, the reliability — or continuity — of water service is also a prevailing challenge for many households in urban and peri-urban areas across Ethiopia. Water services can be intermittent due to operational issues and, in the case of Addis Ababa, an imbalance of available water resources relative to city water demands.

To improve the reliability of water supply during the COVID-19 crisis, MoWIE has been coordinating with a COVID Prevention and Control national task force made up of government agencies and international development partners. The task force has arranged for private hotel and industrial groundwater wells to supplement city water supplies, expedited the rehabilitation and installation of groundwater wells and released more surface water from reservoirs.

Ethiopia is committed to ensuring safe, clean and resilient water supply and sanitation services to all its residents by 2030. Unreliable water supply services should no longer be the norm. But without fully managing our water resources, growing water demands will prove unsustainable. The good news is that we know the wide range of strategies for sustainable management of water supplies, including: protecting the integrity of watersheds and groundwater systems from pollution and degradation, reducing water loss and water use inefficiencies and managing seasonal flows through reservoirs and groundwater recharge. Addis Ababa’s recently released Addis Resilience Strategy, which includes a commitment to “Build a Water Resilient Addis,” is a promising example of cities prioritizing urban water challenges. We must recommit to investing in the sustainable development of water resources and jointly employ measures — across sectors and administrative boundaries — to manage this shared, vital resource.

Preparedness for future shocks

We cannot predict what the future holds, but we can develop and strengthen mechanisms to withstand future shocks — whether they are future disease outbreaks or climate change-driven floods and droughts. As we strive to recover from this pandemic, we must recommit to enhancing institutional capacity and cross-sectoral collaboration to respond to the next crisis.

Water is a basic human right, and a critical resource for our health and prosperity. Ensuring water for all in Ethiopia will require a long-term, concerted effort by government, development partners, the private sector and the Ethiopian people. We believe that jointly recommitting to safe water access will reduce the burden of water insecurity on public health and well-being. And we are hopeful for a future where, when another crisis hits, we have access to water and the systems in place to say: “We are ready.”

Ed.’s Note: Negash Wagesho, State Minister of Water and Sanitation, Ministry of Water, Irrigation and Energy. Yodit Balcha, Climate Change Adaptation Adviser, Ministry of Water, Irrigation and Energy. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter.

Contributed by Negash Wagesho and Yodit Balcha