by Mark Correnti
Americans are being urged by experts that frequent hand washing is one of the best ways to guard themselves and others against the deadly coronavirus. At the same time, over 4 billion million people globally lack the most fundamental element needed for this basic act of self-protection – clean running water.
As ill-equipped to handle a pandemic as much of the Western world seems, developing countries face unfathomable obstacles to protecting their already vulnerable populations. Those living in crowded urban/peri-urban settings and camps – like the estimated 41 million people globally living in internal displacement as a result of conflict and violence and the more than 25 million refugees monitored by the UN Refugee Agency, are particularly at risk. Nations reeling from conflict, poverty and deficient health care will be unable to contain the spread of COVID-19. An associate research fellow at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, Wendy Williams stated, “if the coronavirus were to get into any of these communities, the spread would be rapid and devastating.”
While water supplies, obviously, are necessary, there’s another missing piece that’s required to make running water widely available: pumping. And pumping doesn’t happen without energy. These two needs – access to energy and water – are more deeply connected than most recognize. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), “almost two-thirds of those who lack access to electricity also lack access to clean drinking water.”
As clean water demand grows during this time, the interdependence between water and clean energy for last-mile communities presents an opportunity to couple decentralized energy solutions with pumping and filtration capabilities. These solutions would use a system that combines renewable electricity, like a solar panel farm, and a water source to filter and pump the water so that it can provide safe water for drinking and washing hands to a community.
We are seeing these life-saving clean energy solutions put to work in several refugee camps:
- Bangladesh’s Kutupalong Refugee Camp – home to 1 million Rohingya refugees – has replaced hand-pumped water systems with an inherently high potential for contamination with small-scale, locally installed solar-powered clean water pumps.
- The Dadaab Refugee Complex in Kenya, whose four camps are home to over 200,000 refugees, has a solar and wind energy farm whose energy pumps water from wells into water storage tanks throughout the camps, providing safe drinking water that reduces the risk of illness.
- In Jordan’s Za’Atari Refugee Camp, a solar mini-grid distributes clean water to the camps 70,000 refugees.
Having in-home access to energy and the clean water it supplies not only helps prevent the spread of disease. It also reduces the risk women face of sexual and gender-based violence by eliminating the need to commute to and from shared wells – a task that almost always falls to women.
As we work to flatten the curve in developing countries by improving treatment, we also need to invest in ensuring universal access to clean energy because of the critical health benefits it provides to help fight the disease at points of proliferation. The UN’s recent $2 billion appeal and The World Bank’s newly committed $12 billion for COVID-19 support should be directed to the most vulnerable not only to improve medical treatment but also to support the development of vital services that makes communities more resilient for the future. Any new COVID-19 funding must be contextualized for the disease-fighting attributes of clean water and energy.
Clean water is essential to protect people’s health, prevent the spread of deadly diseases and maintain dignity. Community-level clean energy projects are fundamental to making clean water widely available. In this time of COVID-19, we must not wash our hands of those most vulnerable.