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“The pandemic is shining a spotlight on failure”

“The pandemic is revealing – at the most massive scale imaginable – why resilience is vital.” – says Dr. Mark Smith, Deputy Director General – Research for Development, IWMI  

ET-Insights: How prepared is the global water resources industry for this kind of Pandemic?

Mark: I expect that the capacity to respond to the pandemic in the water resources sector varies greatly – in just the same way indeed as the capacity to manage water resources is highly variable across the world and in different contexts. From one perspective, we can be optimistic because to manage water resources well demands adaptively juggling multiple pressures and multiple demands from all across society.

I think that where there are effective and well-managed water institutions – at basin-wide through to local levels – they will stand a good chance of chance of meeting the challenges of the pandemic, or at least to the maximum extent possible given that there are so many unknowns. However, we all know well that there are many places in the world and many communities that do not benefit from the advantages that well-run water institutions provide. In these places, the pandemic is shining a spotlight on failures to uphold the human right to water and sanitation and the depth of the challenge represented by SDG 6 to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.”

We know that one of the most important actions everyone can take to protect ourselves and others from infection is to wash our hands – and yet there are hundreds of millions of people around the world for whom this simple act is a struggle. The pandemic is surely a lesson in why our collective failure to meet this need for everyone is unacceptable.

ET-Insights: How can we mainstream solutions to better manage mitigate this crisis?

Mark: This is a question that every sector is asking itself right now, and the water sector is no different. For the water supply, sanitation and hygiene (WaSH) sector, the pandemic brings intense urgency, but the priority is clear: provide resilient and reliable access to safe water supply for everyone, everywhere. For the broader water sector, encompassing water management for agriculture, energy, industry and nature, etc., the pandemic highlights a wide range of needs, as well as – and we shouldn’t lose sight of this – potential opportunities.

At IWMI, we are looking at these from the point of view of both how we can directly help our partners and the communities we work with to respond and what are likely to be new priorities for water-related research in the recovery period that will follow and in the post-pandemic world. For example, we are looking at whether, for example, solar-powered pumps used for irrigation can help to rapidly expand handwashing facilities in vulnerable communities in South Asia and Africa. We are asking how water management can help reduce emerging stresses in the food system – so for example if lockdowns and restrictions on movement cause delays in planting of crops, what will this mean for water demand for irrigation in the dry season, and will this intensify competition for water among sectors?

Thinking further ahead to recovery and to what seem sure to be, after such a big shock, profound changes in priorities for the economy and for development, we expect that there will be increasing attention and focus on both short and long-term resilience. Climate change was already causing water managers to look intensively at how to build resilience in communities, countries and economies (think floods, droughts, storms, sea-level rise). The pandemic is revealing – at the most massive scale imaginable – why resilience is vital. We foresee a surge in demand for solutions for resilience to major systemic shocks and stresses, whether related to health, climate change or other issues such as food security, ecosystem decline or pollution. Water resources management and water research will make important contribution to this agenda.

ET-Insights: As a subject matter expert, what do you think can be done to ensure water and sanitation to all?

Mark: I don’t think this is a mystery. We need good governance of water, implemented through effective institutions that assure participation, transparency, integrity and accountability. These institutions need access to expertise, skills and the means to develop their capacities. They need investment and sustainable financing for infrastructure needed to bring safe water to people, to store, clean and recycle water, to manage water risks and the risks of water-related disasters, and to ensure the sustainability of the source waters and ecosystems that supply water. In this era of climate change, we have to do all of this while our knowledge of how much water we have, where and when is becoming more and more uncertain. This looks like a daunting list – but in truth there are many places in the world where people manage all these pieces well; our challenge is to do this everywhere. My top 3 needs? Institutions, infrastructure (meaning both things we build and water services from nature), and data.

Contributor: Dr. Mark Smith, Deputy Director General – Research for Development, IWMI
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