How ASEAN’s water scarcity will exacerbate the Covid-19 crisis

While the world’s attention is squarely focused on Europe as the global epicentre of the coronavirus epidemic, Southeast Asia is also well on track to losing control over the spread of the new pathogen.

The governments of Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and others – all members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) –  have ignored the threat for too long, and are only now beginning to implement far-reaching lockdowns and travel restrictions as the cases of Covid-19 infections are surging.

Despite these measures, which are undoubtedly coming too late, the ASEAN region will be facing an unprecedented health crisis, one that is likely to hit these countries even worse than already severely struggling Europe or North American. The reason: water – or rather, the lack thereof.

Southeast Asia is running dry

According to recent research, more than 100 million people live without access to safe water in Southeast Asia. This number will significantly increase in the future, given that the region’s rapidly growing population is putting ever more pressure on available water resources. Climate change is an exacerbating factor, because it has severely disrupted seasonal atmospheric flow, leading to erratic rainfall patterns where they used to be predictable, while increasing the frequency of droughts and floods.

The consequence is a serious societal challenge on a monstrous scale. For example, in Indonesia’s capital Jakarta alone, merely 40 percent of a population of 10 million are able to access piped water for cooking and basic hygiene. The remaining 60 percent have to rely on alternative, highly polluted water resources, or pump it directly from the ground – the main reason why Jakarta is now sinking by as much as 25 centimetres per year.

Even if the process of relocating huge populations and government departments to another city will surely be a nightmare, what’s even worse is the negative effect of water scarcity on public health. Indeed, the lack of sufficient amounts of clean water for drinking or even basic sanitation is exposing many millions of people across ASEAN to a great variety of diseases, including dysentery, typhoid fever or cholera, to name just a few.

The water-health nexus

And now that Covid-19 is set to hit the region with full force, the risk for the new virus to be spread through dirty water must be taken into consideration. Because the coronavirus propagates via droplets that can be inhaled or transferred by touching a sick person, washing hands regularly with soap and clean water is considered the most effective preventive measure – but what if no clean water is available to maintain a hand-washing routine?

Particularly worrisome in this context are the findings of a recent Chinese study, which suggests that Covid-19 may well be transmissible through stool. If this path of transmission were to be confirmed, fighting the virus would turn out to be even more difficult than it already is. After all, people living in areas with inadequate sewage systems and no running water would then be at a double risk of exposure. Tragically, however, this pattern would neither be surprising or unprecedented, since SARS was found to be spreading via sewage during its 2003 outbreak in Hong Kong as well.

Coronavirus, crisis – and change?

It is clear from this scenario that ASEAN member states need to find a common solution to the water crisis, particularly when it comes to improving water efficiency and governance, besides finding access to new sources.

The most immediate – if necessarily temporary – solution would be to rely on bottled water in order to lower the risk of infection. The residents of cities like Jakarta and Manila, including the poorer ones, have long resorted to drinking bottled water over health or scarcity concerns whenever possible. But sufficient supplies must be secured to account for higher consumption in a crisis situation.

However, to resolve the water and sanitation crises, a longer-term strategy has to be implemented. Such a strategy must include the involvement of all relevant stakeholders working towards developing and scaling solutions, from the public and private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society.

To use water more effectively and efficiently, ASEAN countries have been looking to reduce water waste in the agricultural sector, notorious for its high use of water, as well as concluding regional agreements aiming to govern the use of rivers between upstream and downstream consumers.

For ASEAN countries, tackling the water question in earnest would also mean honouring the promises they codified in the 2012 ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, which explicitly guaranteed “the right to safe drinking water and sanitation.” Covid-19 will likely have serious long-term effects, but could the crisis also be the trigger for a deeper rethinking of how to solve the regional status quo of water scarcity?

Image: Axel Drainville