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To Fight COVID-19, We Must Invest in Water Access for Vulnerable Communities

The PepsiCo Foundation and WaterAid are launching a new program to build sanitation facilities and community water systems in the harsh, arid region of La Guajira, Colombia — with the goal of increasing access for the indigenous Wayuu people.

COVID-19 has revealed critical fault lines in society — especially the lack of clean, safe water. Three billion people worldwide do not have access to the first line of defense against the disease — basic handwashing facilities with soap and water — and, for many, this can be a matter of life and death. And while the pandemic has thrown this crisis into sharper focus than ever before, people around the world have had no water in their homes, schools and even medical facilities for decades.

In developing countries, approximately 80 percent of illnesses are linked to dirty water and poor sanitation. Too often it is factors like income, geography and gender which determine who has access to clean water. This basic human right is foundational to education, health, nutrition and decent work. Without it, vulnerable groups are shut off from the benefits they deserve.

Frequent and proper handwashing is critical to fighting COVID-19; but it requires education, access to a water source; and pipes, pumps and facilities where people can turn on a tap. Safe water access programs are often prioritized in cities, for instance, leaving 8 in 10 people in rural areas without access. Furthermore, many people in hard-to-reach regions do not have the capital to build and maintain safe water infrastructure or the resources to encourage proper handwashing. For that reason, we urgently need both public and private investment. Without it, these communities cannot thrive. 

That’s why The PepsiCo Foundation and WaterAid are launching a program to build sanitation facilities and community water systems in the harsh, arid region of La Guajira, Colombia — with the goal of increasing access for the indigenous Wayuu people. Decades of disenfranchisement have left only 16 percent of the Wayuu with access to water and a mere 4 percent with access to basic sanitation. Wayuu children are dying from malnutrition and illness. Wells have dried up. There is very little food. Clean water will transform these communities.

This program is based on work we pioneered in communities in rural India. Together, we’ve directly helped almost one-quarter million people facing extreme water shortages gain access to clean water and sanitation. Based on our success, we partnered with local governments who invested to provide an additional 90,000 people access to clean water and sanitation in three states — support that will continue for years to come. And in response to COVID-19, we launched a mass-media hygiene and handwashing awareness campaign in India that has reached more than one million people across 13 states, designing materials in various languages and levels of literacy.

Handwashing and hygiene infrastructure can prevent future pandemics before they start, and improve global health and livelihoods on a massive scale — but only if we continue to prioritize these initiatives with community-based interventions that address existing inequalities. 

As we look toward a 2030 deadline for reaching Sustainable Development Goal 6 — ensuring access to water and sanitation for all — we must keep in mind one of the guiding principles behind these goals: “Leave no one behind.” Today, more than three billion people are left without access to safe water, placing them at greater risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19 and other diseases.

Clean water is a human right. We must ensure that it is easily accessible to everyone in every community, no matter how hard to reach. Let’s harness the public awakening about the importance of handwashing, hygiene and safe water to stem the spread of COVID-19 in 2021, and change the face of global public health for years to come.