By: Edwin Novoa

It is common to think that, internationally, a lack of access to water occurs in places with dry ecosystems like deserts, in small remote communities that don’t have water works, or in poor countries in Africa. Nevertheless, several cases lead us to believe that this crisis to access water is global:

In Canada (a high income country with the largest number of lakes in the world), more than 100 First Nations communities do not have access to water, 

In large cities like Chennai – in southern India– with 10 million inhabitants, citizens do not have access to water; or Lagos –in Nigeria– where 18 million people live, 86% of the population isn’t connected to the water works.

In the United States, the world’s largest economy, over 15 million people cannot access potable water.

Also, this is a situation that worsens day by day: since 1980, international water use has increased by 1% annually, in a scenario where fresh water makes up only 3% of the Earth’s total water.

Access to potable water and sanitation was established as a human right in 2010 and in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, not fully guaranteeing this right leaves humanity even more vulnerable with an increased risk of mass infection, which leads to a collapse of the health care system and the economy. That is to say, protecting the right to water is the most beneficially plan for society as a measure to prevent catastrophes, such as pandemics.

It may interest you: Discussion on the Right to Water During a Health Emergency. 

Water is needed to reduce the impact of coronavirus.

The information shared most widely on the need for water, is that it is necessary to constantly wash your hands to avoid infection. However, the requirements go far beyond that: those who do not have access to potable water cannot protect themselves from the virus and, in the case of infection, survival rates are greatly reduced. Here’s why:

These people must go out to look for water, that is to say, they cannot be isolated or confined. 

A large part of their time each day is invested in this search and this is time that cannot spent working and thus generating an economic income.

Their food is precarious as it uses low-quality water. Consequently they have a weak immunological system.

In general, the lack of water generates conditions of poverty that makes it impossible to access quality healthcare systems and medicine, which is why, upon infection the chances of survival drop.

A large part of the world’s population live under these conditions. In addition to the examples mentioned at the beginning of this article, it is known that of the 7 trillion people on the planet, at least 4 trillion suffer a severe water shortage during one month or more of each year and close to 2 trillion live in places with water stress. 

The right to water

Water and food are the most valued elements in any society; they can mark the difference between life and death during an emergency, whether it is war, an epidemic, or an economic crisis. This is so true that water, as was mentioned, is internationally recognized as a human right and is protected by International Humanitarian Law in the case of armed conflict.

Basically, the right to water means that States have the obligation to generate the conditions so that this vital liquid is available (this means easy and uninterrupted access for everyone), ensuring that each person has an adequate amount (50 to 100 liters of water daily), and that it guarantees the minimum quality for human consumption.

Hence, States must plan and manage the use of water sources with the aim of guaranteeing the right to water. In Colombia there are three main water management mechanisms:

Each river basin (a river’s area of influence) must be planned using a Watershed Use and Management Plan (Pomca, in Spanish), which includes several protection and management instruments.

It is the environmental authorities that authorize water use. To do so, the concept of “water concessions” or permits is used. These permits are granted to companies or individuals to use water under certain conditions. Water works companies –which are responsible for providing water for consumption in cities– operate under this concept, as do companies that use water for economic activities. In any case, a fee must be charged for the use of water.

Some strategic water producing ecosystems, like páramos (high-altitude wetlands) or marshes,  must be protected and have community management to guarantee the water’s protection.

There is a fourth transitory measure: in the context of the State of Emergency decreed in response to the pandemic, the national government has relaxed the procedure for water concessions so that water works companies can have a permanent supply. In addition, it allows for the reconnection of services for those people who had their water suspended for lack of payment.

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