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Celebrating Earth Day in the midst of it all

April 24, 2020

Earth Day 2020 ©Pallavi Bharadwaj

Approx. 10 mins read. < 1050 words

The Context: 

When it came to Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH), growing up in India, I had two extreme case scenarios in my two sets of grandparents homes. My paternal grandmother never turned the tap off, while doing the dishes and let it flow, even if it was just a little trickle (according to her). This used to irk my mother and she complained under her breath urging my grandmother to turn the tap off, as politely as an Indian daughter-in-law could have done in the 1980s. On the other hand, in my maternal grandparents’ home, I never saw anyone use soap to wash their hands, even after using the toilet! My maternal grandparents always used ashes from the burned firewood or mud to clean their hands, and also a few copper utensils to make them shine. This could be very confusing to a toddler’s eyes and mind. My own adoptee grandparent did not condone either practice, and made sure to inculcate the habit of washing hands with soap, and keeping the tap off while rubbing the soap.

So, why am I going down the memory lane now? That little practice from my childhood, speaks volumes about the need of both behavioral change in the developed countries (to save water while washing hands, brushing teeth, shaving, doing dishes and so on), and in developing countries to use soap and not traditional items (sand, ash and mud) to wash their hands with water in the time of COVID-19 and beyond.

Our World today:

Safe WASH practices are vital for human well-being. However, 1 in 3 people (approximately 2.2 billion) still lack safe drinking water, 4.2 billion do not have access to safely managed sanitation services, and 829,000 people die annually from unsafe water and related sanitation and hygiene around the world.

In India, where only a fifth of all households out of 1.3 billion have piped running water, frequent handwashing is a challenge. This is a common scenario for most in sub-Saharan African countries too, where 75 percent of people living in rural areas lack adequate facilities for handwashing. Clean water and good hygiene is the absolute minimum that’s needed to combat the spread of the new coronavirus. But in sub-Saharan Africa, the World Bank reported that around 75 percent of people living in rural areas live in homes that lack adequate facilities for handwashing. One charity working in the Western Province of Kenya found that 95 percent of the households they visited had no access to running water. And that’s only part of the problem. Nearly a billion people experience only partial access or regular shutoffs even when they do have piped water, making frequent hand-washing  difficult or impossible.

Major health organizations and experts advise washing hands more frequently – for at least 20 seconds – to prevent outbreaks. A report released last year by the WHO and UNICEF found that as of 2017, 3 billion people worldwide, or 40 percent of the global population, lacked basic facilities at home to wash their hands with soap and water. More than 670 million people were still defecating in the open, and another 700 million were using unimproved, unsanitary facilities.According a recent article by WRI, that’s only part of the problem. Nearly a billion people experience only partial access or regular shutoffs even when they do have piped water, making frequent handwashing  difficult or impossible.

Pertinent solutions to speed up WASH access:

1.  Engineering for Change’s Solutions Library:  features a number of safe handwashing products and services, such as the tippytap. These solutions make setting up handwashing stations in the communities very easy. These solutions are market tested and can provide low to no-cost options to areas, where soap is considered a luxury item.  

2. Financing the gap: As the global WASH community races towards 2030 to meet SDG 6, new sources of finance and better use of existing ones for WASH projects are essential. A range of financing approaches can help address the diverse needs between and within countries, as well as incorporate measures that bolster resilience as illustrated in this article from New Security Beat, Wilson Center’s blog. 

3.  Providing WASH collectively to the communities in need: Separating water supply from sanitation services will push us back many years. Equitable distribution of water for communities, agriculture and industries shall help combat COVID-19 crisis and prepare for future events. Grassroots organizations, such as Gravity Water in the US and NEER Foundationin India, are working towards addressing the current crisis via a collaborative and ecosystems based approach.

4. Affordable WASH for all: For many communities, especially in subsistence economies (farming and related occupation), affordable might even mean “free”, according to Mr. Leo Heller, Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation during one of the recent RWSN’s webinars. This affordability is especially imperative now, in the time of COVID-19, so that these communities can spend their limited resources to buy basics such as food, medicines and soap.

5. Bringing nature wherever possible in our daily lives:

Sponge cities and now biophilic cities, cities that aspire to be more rich in nature within their unique and diverse environments and where the planning and design abundantly incorporate the natural world into the daily lives of residents, are the concepts that we need more of. Richmond, VA is the latest biophilic city, following Singapore as one of the international ones.

In conclusion: 

A combination of all the above along with a global consensus on speeding the delivery of much-needed resources  would go a long way in creating resilient communities. April 22, 2020, marks 50 years of commemorating Earth Day. In that time nations have coalesced around policy and technology that reduced acid rain and depletion of the ozone layer, and institutions have launched to conserve land and wildlife, improve the air, clean the oceans and lay foundations for mitigating climate change. As a planet, we have been solving problems in the inequitable distribution and degradation of natural resources for 50 years. We are more than capable of doing it now, as we work together to meet the UN SDG 2030 Agenda for all and leave no one behind.

Disclaimer: This article is a combination of articles that originally appeared on Engineering for Change and World Water Reserve. It has been modified for the readers of this blog. To read the original articles, please click the names above.

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