The global coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the vital importance of hygiene. Suddenly we have rediscovered handwashing as the best preventive measure to avoid contracting or spreading viruses. However, when the media, governments and civil society bang on about handwashing without acknowledging whether people have water in the first place, it breeds cynicism within communities who are routinely denied their human rights.
The provision of safe water and sanitation should be regarded as a social good that protects public health. Yet politicians and the public have been sold the idea that we should allow markets to determine the provision of public services. This idea has been pushed blindly in countries where huge numbers of people live in poverty. In the UK, water fountains have been closed to reduce revenue losses to water companies. Public toilets are shut for similar reasons. In other countries, this has serious public health consequences. Outbreaks of water-borne diseases are the norm. During winter and rainy seasons, people lose loved ones to typhoid, diarrhoea and cholera. Their plight sometimes attracts global attention that leads to hollow, non-binding pledges at international forums.
Coronavirus will be a double whammy for people who live in poverty with no access to safe water and sanitation. Communities have little chance to protect themselves because they simply do not have enough water to wash their hands. Governments and developments banks must immediately roll out safe water and sanitations projects in these communities. The projects should not be motivated by short-term profiteering but protecting public health: one in four health centres worldwide lack basic water services. It should not take a pandemic like COVID-19 to realise that the denial of some people's human rights affects us all.
It is time for civil society to take their role seriously in advocating for safe water and sanitation as a public good. You will encounter some resistance but remember that even the right to vote was fought for. As was the right to annual leave and sick pay - more on that later...
As a collective, we can win the fight for the rights to safe water and sanitation. Join our #ClaimYourWaterRights campaign.