Renowned epidemiologist points out the threat the disintegration of RSA water and sanitation services holds to community health

15 May 2020

by Dr Jo Barnes & Cobus Meiring 

“The effects of the novel COVID-19 pandemic are sending shockwaves through the world on many levels, and in South Africa, many of these effects, mostly construed through the intense lockdown, gives us a hint of what our weaknesses are and what the changing climate will force upon us,” says Cobus Meiring of the Garden Route Environmental Forum (GREF).

As a part of a series of ongoing debates with key stakeholders, GREF interviewed Dr Jo Barnes, an esteemed epidemiologist and community health expert of Stellenbosch University, on the importance of water in the context of community health and how water may well become a vector for more diseases in the immediate future if drastic measures to improve the situation are not heeded.

Says Dr Barnes, “The pandemic of the new Coronavirus across the world is the single most destructive health event for more than a century and it continues to cost human lives and wreck the economy. As the outbreak carries on spreading, the role of water in combatting the virus becomes more and more critical”.

Handwashing with soap, when done correctly, is critical in the fight against the disease called COVID-19. However, a significant segment of the South African population has no consistent access to a safe water to wash their hands. This is particularly distressing, given the longstanding efforts to make basic hygiene and safe sanitation available to the whole population.

“Water tanks are to be made available to many communities to bring water closer to people’s homes but no mention is made of the provision of soap. Rinsing hands without proper washing with soap is basically a waste of water and offers little protection since water alone does not dislodge more than a small number of the virus particles,” says Dr Barnes.

She also raises concerns about the number of water tanks installed in communities.

“There is little information on how many of these tanks have actually been installed and, even more importantly, on how often and from where they will be refilled.”

“Research on other strains of Coronavirus indicates that the virus can survive up to 12 days in room temperature tap water, two to three days in room temperature wastewater, and much longer in both at cooler temperatures. We do not yet have reliable information on the present virus. This has serious implications for the many families who have to fetch water from a distant source and store it in a bucket or open container. It also indicates that poor disposal of water after use in the home can pose risks to the environment and the health of other people,” warns Dr Barnes.

“One of the most urgent weaknesses brought into sharp focus by this pandemic is the lack of sufficient progress in the provision of safe access to water and sanitation in a large number of communities across South Africa. When the outbreak has been brought under some sort of control, we must reprioritise our activities to pay far more attention to basic human needs. This is not negotiable,” she concludes.

According to the World Economic Forum, 47% of the world population is going to experience water scarcity by 2030. Desertification is on the increase everywhere in the world. In Africa, almost 70% of the continent is arid or semi-arid. If no measures are taken, water scarcity, exacerbated by climate change, is expected to cost some regions up to 6% of their economic growth.

In March this year, World Water Day 2020 focused on the interconnectedness of water and climate change. According to the World Economic Forum, water is the primary resource affected by climate change, with repercussions on the supply of drinking water, sanitation, and water used for food and energy production. Or in other words, as suggested by climate-change experts, “If climate change is a shark, then water is its teeth”.

COVID-19 highlights the lack of sufficient progress in the provision of safe access to water and sanitation to a large number of communities across South Africa. (Photo: Dr Jo Barnes)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Garden Route Environmental Forum (GREF) is a public platform for environmental management entities in the Southern Cape, and a regional think tank on climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Written by Marti Kirstein