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Combating effectively COVID-19 in fragile environments with WASH resilience

By Jose Luis Martin Bordes, Senior WASH specialist and advisor

JDC and NALA's handwashing initiative in Ethiopia (March 2020). Credits: NALA/JDC.

“We don’t have enough water to drink and cook our food, so where will we get water to wash our hands frequently?” lamented Anna, a resident of the Kibera slum, when the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Kenya was announced in March.

Anna is a single mother of seven children making a living as a nanny in the most populated slum of Nairobi – and largest urban slum in Africa.[1] 

In Kijiji Southlands slum, also in Kenya, Beatrice is well-aware of the coronavirus risks but the actions needed to protect her family — isolation and sanitation — remain, for her, mere illusions. “At Kijiji, you have to pay for everything — toilet, bathroom, water, garbage — yet most of us have been left without jobs,” Beatrice said. “To use the toilets, it costs us 10 [Kenyan] Shillings. There are at least six public toilets around here since our houses don’t have them. Most people bathe inside their rooms and then clean up. Very few houses have bathrooms and they are often shared by many people,” Beatrice further explained.

These two female voices from Kenya well capture the current state in many urban slums, informal settlements and refugee camps around the world, where water access points and basic sanitation facilities are traditionally lacking. Availability and access are further undermined when movement restrictions are put in place with the aim of preventing further spread of the disease.  As a result, it is expected that COVID-19 will have greater repercussions on individuals like Anna, Beatrice and their families, living in under-resourced and over-crowded communities where maintaining social distancing and self-isolation remains extremely challenging.

Ten independent experts appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva to discuss the COVID-19 crisis agree that: “People living in informal settlements, those who are homeless, rural populations, women, children, older persons, people with disabilities, migrants, refugees and all other groups vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic need to have continuous access to sufficient and affordable water”. 

At the same time, communities in informal settlements and camps for displaced populations have a powerful asset: resilience. They have an immense capacity to self-organize, identify their needs, and tailor innovative low-cost solutions and mitigation strategies.

It is therefore essential to invest in preparedness and maximize the capacity of such communities to effectively prepare and respond to crises, recover quickly and reach long-term solutions. As such, significant WASH measures are already being promoted and implemented by UN agencies, national and local governments, civil society organizations, women and youth groups and community leaders.

This includes:

  • Putting in place emergency safe drinking water, sanitation and handwashing facilities in key locations in informal settlements and high-density public places. This involves ensuring emergency preparedness by providing water tanks, standpipes, handwashing facilities and sanitizers along with hygiene messages particularly in crowded areas such as markets, train and bus stations. In addition, as scientific studies confirm the persistence of COVID-19 in water contaminated with feces for days to weeks, consideration should be given to safely managing human excreta throughout the entire sanitation chain, starting with ensuring access to regularly cleaned, accessible, and functioning toilets or latrines and to the safe containment, conveyance, treatment, and eventual disposal of sewage.

  • Actively engaging and training community leaders, volunteers and groups through existing formal and informal networks operating in the informal settlements, such as youth centers. This includes leveraging technology to facilitate learning processes during periods of social distancing  (i.e. availing pre-paid phones with data bundles using specific educational apps); setting up and managing handwashing facilities and carrying out sensitization and awareness campaigns, including disseminating COVID-related messages on handwashing, via traditional media such as radio, television and distribution of leaflets in accordance with instructions and regulations.

  • Gathering information about the existing situation and immediate needs from knowledgeable local institutions and key community representatives, including socioeconomic data on the most vulnerable populations and risk groups (i.e. elderly and people living with chronic medical conditions). This information should be made available to local authorities and decision-makers who can enforce good hygiene behaviors and decide on priority water provision for the most vulnerable.

  • Creating pandemic resilience plans on best practices and experiences from past global outbreaks. Water and sanitation service providers and utilities operating in informal settlements should develop specific plans to deal with and adapt to the dynamic evolution of crises, as well as to assess the pandemic impact on their community. These plans should include emergency response actions based on current information, defining roles and responsibilities for staff, planning for staff shortage due to absenteeism, and prepare for eventual field operation interruptions.

In terms of development and implementation of WASH policies in informal settlements, the lessons-learned from the 2020 COVID-19 epidemic should serve as a catalyzer to develop and upgrade existing WASH infrastructure and channel future investments to build resilient and sustainable water supply and basic sanitation systems. Strengthening and empowering efficient community-based water management mechanisms in informal settlements are a must where no formal water utilities or service providers operate.      


Jose Luis Martin Bordes is a civil engineer and water expert with 15 years of experience in the UN system working in the development of capacities of water and sanitation utilities in the Global South as Officer in Charge of the Global Water Operators’ Partnerships Alliance (GWOPA) of UN-Habitat in Nairobi and Barcelona. He also worked in groundwater resources management, transboundary waters cooperation and urban water management in UNESCO's International Hydrological Programme (IHP) in Paris and as Academic Officer in the UN-Water Decade Programme on Capacity Development (UNW-DPC) at the United Nations University (UNU) in Bonn.


[1] Some sources suggest the total Kibera population may be 500,000 to well over 1,000,000.



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