Dirty flow: The Covid-19 risk in Southeast Asia’s rivers

Mekong. Mikel Lizarralde/Flickr

If the findings of a new study are to be believed, the novel coronavirus holding the world hostage at the moment poses a greater threat to the health of humans, animals and plants than previously suspected. The study – which still awaits peer-review – suggests that Covid-19 is able to remain stable in contaminated water for up to 25 days, and places a special focus on contamination through sewage.

Even though these findings still need final verification, they nonetheless bring attention to the potentially great risk for infection from dirty water at a time when personal hygiene is of the essence. The sewage systems in Southeast Asia’s urban centers are often inadequate, with wastewater being pumped into rivers and the ocean, where diseases can potentially become endemic within flora and fauna and thus, when consumed, act as a new vector for the coronavirus to affect human health.

Vietnam and the Philippines: Southeast Asia’s dirty waters

Indeed, according to the study, this circular path of transmission is a serious problem in regions that rely heavily on rivers for freshwater and irrigation. A case in point is the Mekong. As the 12th largest river in the world, it is the primary water source for nearly 20 million people, who use it for drinking, fishing and agriculture. However, it’s also used as a dumping ground for industrial waste and sewage and has thus become one of the most polluted rivers in Southeast Asia.

Alarmed that urban and rural wastewater will account for up to 75 percent of the Mekong’s pollution by 2030 if things continue unabated, the World Bank in early 2019 predicted tangible, long-lasting economic damage to Vietnam as a result of a sickened population exposed to polluted water. According to its projections, Vietnam’s GDP could contract by at least 3.5 percent, with cumulative financial costs associated with the river’s pollution standing at $18.6 million per day.

It’s easy to see how this calculation would radically change to the worse if Covid-19 were shown to be transmitted via sewage as well – but not only in Vietnam. In the Philippines, the Marilao river flows through the capital of Manila, where it accumulates a range of pollutants so extreme that it has been described as an open sewer. Since at best only a third of households is connected to the sewer system, untreated residential waste is discarded directly into the water. If this weren’t already bad enough, this practice is also contaminating vital freshwater aquifers in the process.

Between crisis management and fighting the root causes

With merely one of 10 people in the Philippines having access to clean water, it’s no surprise that waterborne diseases, particularly diarrhea, is killing over 139 000 people in the country ever year. If Covid-19 is now added to the list – as other studies have previously warned – fighting the virus effectively requires a wholistic approach that tackles the issue of reducing water pollution and providing alternative water supplies at the same time.

The solution most city residents have been resorting to for years – in Manila and other cities across the ASEAN region – is the use of bottled water as a source of potable liquid independent of public supplies. Especially in times of public health emergencies like the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, relying on bottled water is a safer option to prevent waterborne infections. As long as the government is unable to guarantee “improved drinking water sources”, which the UN defines as “protected by outside contamination, particularly fecal matter”, this often remains the only option while deeper reforms to public infrastructure are being enacted.

Setting priorities for cleaner rivers

Perhaps the greatest priority, then, is for ASEAN countries to adopt relevant legal frameworks and enforcement mechanisms that improve access to clean water and prevent waste from being pumped into rivers without control. Apart from reconsidering the negative effects that privatization has had on public water and sewage infrastructure, particularly in the Philippines, employing means to disinfect water sources must be expedited. High-tech filters, chlorination or ultraviolet light are proven ways to eradicate pathogens, even if the most suitable method for inactivating Covid-19 still needs to be assessed.

To ensure the long-term quality of urban bodies of water as well as Southeast Asia’s rivers, effective monitoring capabilities should be expanded to keep tap on pollution levels. A drone-based monitoring system was already put in place for the Mekong, tracking plastic pollution as it flows across China and making its way through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. This system could be updated to include the tracking of other types of pollution, including from industries and cities.

Southeast Asia’s rivers are an indispensable lifeline for millions in cities and the countryside. If the clock for cleaning up the waters was already ticking, the corona-crisis has only added to the urgency, and international investors shouldn’t shy away from providing the funds required for infrastructure projects of this kind. But ASEAN governments too have the chance to affect real change – or deal forever with the consequences of having failed to act.