Water resources in the face of Covid-19


By Macpherson Nthara:



Freshwater is vital to our life support systems and is required for almost all human activities. However, for much of the world, the availability of adequate water poses a significant challenge to development and environmental sustainability. For Africa, water resources are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change and an estimated 25 percent of the African population experiences water stress.


Climate change is likely to be an important constraint on water availability in the future. There is strong evidence that climate change has negative impacts on water resources and will continue to do so in the future. We must anticipate that future climate change is unavoidable and that adaptation is necessary. Decision-making bodies, including governments, need to incorporate climate-related impacts on water resources into decision-making processes.

Since its first case was confirmed on April 2, 2020, Malawi’s Covid-19 confirmed cases have risen to 4,674 with 2,430 recoveries and 146 deaths as of August 10. The coming of the Covid-19 pandemic has emphasised the fact that good hygiene and clean water are the first line of defence against the disease, Cholera, Ebola and other highly contagious diseases. With the global and national attention focused on halting and slowing down the spread of the pandemic, the role of water in sanitation and hygiene needs to be highlighted.

Doctors and epidemiologist classify water-related diseases as being comprised of waterborne – transmitted by microorganisms in drinking water, i.e. related to water quality and the water-washed diseases: transmitted as a result of poor hygiene, largely as a result of inadequate water for washing i.e. related to water quantity. These water-washed diseases are now recognised as being of great significance and they can be prevented by increasing water quantity, improving accessibility and reliability of domestic water supply and improving hygiene and sanitation behaviour.


However, in areas where there are water shortage challenges, people tend to prioritise their water usage and it is likely the needs for sanitation and hygiene often take second place to other needs including drinking and cooking. This increases the risk of the water-washed diseases including Covid-19. Techniques are required to improve water availability over space and time in areas not only prone to drought and changing climate variability, but also those with deteriorating water availability due to increasing water demands and human influences.

 Challenges of access to water amid Covid-19

The global pandemic (Covid-19) might partly be considered a Wash disease which requires precautionary measures such as regular hand-washing and drinking more water, among other practices. The disease has spread to all 28 administrative districts where access to water for sanitation and hygiene remains a challenge. In these areas people struggle to get regular clean drinking water let alone water to wash hands.

It is estimated, by that 85 percent of Malawians live in rural areas and of these 6.12 percent live without access to clean water. Currently, one in every 10 Malawians (about 1.7 million people) do not have access to clean water, something that is not in tandem with Sustainable Development Goal Number 6 which states that every person is entitled to have access to clean water. Fifty-nine percent of the population has no access to improved sanitation.

This situation poses a serious challenge in the fight against Covid-19 as these sections will not be able to undertake preventive measures such as regular hand-washing. Women and girls spend hours each day fetching water or waiting in crowded queues for water vendors, potentially increasing their risk of exposure to the virus. If they struggle with these tasks because they are ill, or have to care for the sick, their health and food security could be further compromised. Compounding the issue still further, restrictions on movement may lessen the ability to access water at all. Hence, how do the World Health Organisation-advised precautionary measures on Covid-19 fit with the everyday practices of those without 24/7 water supply?

Increasing water shortages, intermittency of water supply, poor infrastructural networks to provide quality drinking water and the spatial splintering that characterise many areas in the country present a challenge towards suppressing the spread of Covid-19. This question is even tougher for the poorer populations who do not only receive erratic water supply but meet their daily water needs through a dynamic patchwork of sources including boreholes, shallow wells and polluted rivers. When clean drinking water is unavailable or runs out, people will resort to unsafe water which is not suitable for the fight against Covid-19.

To address these challenges, it is therefore important that a combination of several sources and technologies for the water supply are explored and given attention in this era of the Covid-19 crisis. So far, it appears the fight against the pandemic has focused on hygiene behaviours such as wearing of masks and hand-washing.

However, there is little focus on rural water supply systems. We all know that availability of water is a catalyst in this fight as hand-washing is not feasible if water is not available. Simple methods and techniques for water collection and storage are needed to facilitate rapid and widespread adoption and scaling up of sanitation and hygiene practices aimed at tackling infectious diseases like diarrhoea, Ebola and the Covid-19.

Interventions to strengthen water security should focus on four key areas:

  • Adequate water availability: preventing or suppressing potential pandemics is likely to increase water demand for domestic and health uses. Supply and storage solutions are needed to ensure there is adequate water available and to manage trade-offs upstream (competing demands from other sectors) and downstream (wastewater production). In some ways ensuring water availability is the most obvious need, particularly in context of climate change, and increasing water scarcity, demand, and competition between sectors.
  • Acceptable water quality: water quality is deteriorating across developing countries including Malawi due to discharges from agriculture, industry, human waste, and wastewater. Both surface and groundwater are affected. Climate change will also negatively affect water quality. There is need for simple Household Water Treatment Systems (HWTS) to enable access to water of acceptable quality.
  • Water resources management: ensuring sustainable access to adequate amounts of acceptable quality water and resilience will require strengthening water resources management so that water is available where and when it is needed to suppress and prevent future pandemics. Promoting methods for improved land and water management will enable farming communities produce more but using less water, hence reducing competition.
  • Affordable access to Wash: One in three people in Malawi don’t have clean water (that is 5.6 million people). More than 3,100 children under-five die every year from diarrhoea caused by dirty water and poor sanitation. Some 9.6 million people don’t have a decent toilet; that is more than half of the entire population. This hampers efforts to suppress or prevent pandemics like the Covid-19. Investments in extending access to Wash can have co-benefits, such as job creation and improved health.

 Practise of rainwater harvesting amid Covid-19

One promising technology for increasing water supply is rainwater harvesting. There is a huge potential for increasing water availability through rainwater harvesting in Malawi as the country receives considerable amounts of rain that is so far not harnessed and utilised properly. If we consider that all the rain that fell on the land could be harvested, there would be fewer water and food security problems as water demand could be met – the fact is that much of this rain falls in short periods of time with high intensity.

Rainwater harvesting is the process of collecting rainwater from rooftops, rock catchments, land surfaces and storing it in underground and above tanks, water storage ponds and earth dams rather than allowing it to run off. Rainwater is valued for its purity and softness. It has a nearly neutral pH and is free from infection by-products, salts, minerals and other natural and man-made contaminants.

The practice of rainwater harvesting has several benefits including first of all harvesting water from rooftops at homes reduces water bills as the harvested water supplements piped water. It also reduces women’s and girls’ workload of fetching water. Harvesting rainwater also improves sanitation and hygiene as there is available water for cleaning, washing, bathing and the toilets in either homes or schools.

Rainwater harvesting through Ferro cement tanks and low-cost calabash cisterns is one such approach for supplying water to households that can help stop the spread of the pandemic. Records of serious illness associated or linked to rainwater supplies are few, indicating that rain water harvesting technologies are effective sources of water supply for various purposes.

Contrary to popular beliefs, rather than becoming stale with extended storage, rainwater quality often improves as bacteria and pathogens gradually die off. This technology coupled with municipal water supply is suited to both urban and rural areas. The construction of local storage tanks using available cement materials or provision of conveyance system (gutters) does not require very highly-skilled labour.

The capital cost of rainwater harvesting system is very much dependent on the type of catchment, conveyance and storage tanks materials used. Compared to deep and shallow tube wells, rainwater collection and system are more cost effective, but can be a little higher if the initial investment includes the cost of roofing materials. The most expensive part of a rainwater harvesting system is usually the storage tank or reservoir itself, which depends on cost of materials, storage capacity and construction.

Sustainable concrete hand-washing stations

Despite these benefits, why rainwater techniques are not more widespread in Malawi remains an unanswered question but might have to do with lack of investments in rainwater harvesting technologies, lack of high level political support, and a lack of understanding of adoption criteria which include biophysical preconditions, socio-economic conditions, market issues, land tenure issues and human capacity.

Many of the rainwater harvesting techniques (especially floodwater harvesting and storage techniques) are not only sometimes uncommon, but also at times unknown and not practised at all – in other words, there is huge potential to pick and choose potentially relevant techniques for specific sites in order to improve water availability. In this era of the Covid-19 Pandemic, Wash project managers need to know how to increase water availability to be able to adapt to a changing climate as predictions give some idea of decrease in water availability globally.

The Rainwater Harvesting Association of Malawi (RHAM) is promoting various approaches for rooftop water harvesting aimed at increasing access to water during this pandemic. The association was launched in 2003 in Lilongwe, as a development partner towards integrated water resources management initiative of the Government of Malawi and other stakeholders. The Association was registered in 2005 as a non-political, non-profit making NGO with the Office of the Registrar General and has a seal for its trustees. The association has a constitution and is run by the executive committee through its secretariat.

RHAM is engaged in a rainwater harvesting, storage and utilisation project across Malawi. It comprises a number of individuals and institutions that are involved and take interest in rainwater harvesting activities throughout the country. The association taps its expertise from its membership which included engineers, hydrologists and a pool of builders who have over the years been trained in the design and construction of water harvesting structures.

Provision of water is key to the precautionary measures aimed at stopping the spread of the pandemic. However, for rural marginalised communities who lack safe clean water, it is difficult to practise hand-washing and other hygienic practices when there is water scarcity. There is need for identifying alternative sources of water to enable sanitation and hygiene practices to prevail. Rainwater harvesting is one such technology that requires more attention.

The author is Chairman of Rainwater Harvesting Association of Malawi

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