With the exception of South Africa, where the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 has passed 1,000, the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) has been less affected by the novel coronavirus that has paralysed the rest of the world. This does not tell us anything about the future progression of the disease in the region, other than that there is still an opportunity to arrest its spread in most of sub-Saharan Africa if governments and citizens work together effectively.
COVID-19: a waterborne disease?
COVID-19 is known as an airborne disease: it is spread through respiratory droplets between people in close contact or, less frequently, through surface transmission of the virus. Following findings in two studies that fragments of the virus were present in the faecal matter of COVID-19 patients, there was widespread concern that faecal-oral transmission of the disease was an additional risk. The scientific consensus, however, is that water supply systems are an unlikely route of transmission. Though COVID-19 can survive in water for hours and even days, sewerage systems are capable of filtering out and destroying the coronavirus. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the current evidence indicates that ‘conventional, centralized water treatment methods that use filtration and disinfection should inactivate the COVID-19 virus’. Where these are not available, household water treatment technologies, including boiling, should be effective.
Risks for communities with poor water and sanitation
For many in the developed world, the WHO recommendation to engage in frequent and thorough handwashing with soap and clean water to cut the risk of COVID-19 transmission is a highly effective and simple intervention. But the risks faced by many communities in the SADC are all too clear. Poor people without access to safe water supplies and sanitation are already very vulnerable to a spectrum of waterborne diseases. Being compelled to use untreated water and unsanitary facilities compounds the risk of COVID-19 faecal-oral transmission, but being unable to reduce the risk of airborne transmission through safe and frequent handwashing is a much more serious problem, in both homes and in health care settings.
Keeping up with WASH
CRIDF’s work to improve water supply and sanitation systems for communities along the SADC’s river basins has never been so crucial. In fact, many of its projects specifically address the challenges faced by border towns with heavy transborder traffic. With cases of COVID-19 expected to spread across the region in the weeks and months to come, and water supplies under increasing pressure due to climate change, it will be important for CRIDF to continue to maintain and improve water supply and sewerage systems across the 15 river basins shared by its 12 member countries. Helping communities to counter the spread of COVID-19 is one of many of the co-benefits of secure WASH facilities, and is part of CRIDF’s strategy to support poor people in sustaining their livelihoods in the long term.