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We Need Safe Water to Fight COVID-19 — And We Need to Provide It Now

Now that we have entered a moment of heightened global awareness of safe water as a cornerstone of public health and community well-being, we must join hands with others to make the investments needed to save lives. 

By 2050, 5.7 billion people, more than half of the world’s population, will be living in water-scarce areas for at least one month per year — not because of any one cataclysmic event, but as a result of continuous climate change-driven droughts and floods that threaten to squeeze the life out of entire swaths of our world.

So far, the water crisis has moved in slow motion, worsening as the Earth’s temperature gradually inches upward. COVID-19, however, has brought more attention to the urgency of safe water access — and not just because clean water is the first line of defense against the virus’s spread. The pandemic has also exposed a lack of critical investment in global water infrastructure that needs to be addressed with long-term, sustainable initiatives — and this work needs to start now, or up to 700 million people may be displaced by intense water insecurity as early as 2030.

Today, three billion people lack soap and water at home to wash their hands and sanitize surfaces. As the world confronts the ongoing threat of COVID-19, the two billion people who currently get their water from communal wells may be at greater risk of contracting the virus if they can’t social distance while retrieving water. And for those who do get sick, two in five healthcare facilities globally do not have places for doctors, nurses and patients to wash their hands. At a time where washing your hands can literally mean the difference between life and death, this is unacceptable. Now that we have entered a moment of heightened global awareness of safe water as a cornerstone of public health and community well-being, we must join hands with others to make the investments needed to save lives. 

According to the UN, $6.7 trillion needs to go towards water infrastructure by 2030 in order to achieve the water, sanitation and hygiene component of Sustainable Development Goal 6 — “Ensure access to water and sanitation for all.” Given the urgency of action and scale of investment needed, it is essential that public and private sectors double down on our work together now. Inequalities in water collection are exacerbated in emergencies, and marginalized communities are at greater risk during crises. With COVID-19 directly threatening the health of those most in need; direct, timely interventions are key. Yet it is important to remember that water is a local issue; therefore, a solution that works for a rural family in India may not translate to a solution for an urban family in Brazil. To make sustained progress toward SDG 6, interventions must be tailored to the needs of individual communities, and scaled for impact.

Nahargarh Step Well, Brahampuri, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India | Image credit: Surbhi B/Unsplash

At PepsiCo, we know the power of effective hyper-local, partner-driven solutions. Since 2006, our philanthropic arm — The PepsiCo Foundation — has invested with partners including Safe Water Network, China Women’s Development Foundation, Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), and WaterAid to bring safe water access to more than 44 million people globally. In Latin America, for example, we piloted programs with IDB to install water pumps and pipes in rural areas in Peru, Mexico, Colombia and Honduras — in communities that typically receive less support for clean water projects than more densely populated areas. As a result, 778,000 people gained access to safe water; and our efforts attracted millions of dollars in additional funding from international public sector partners to build pipe systems, treatment plants and other new infrastructure in local communities.

Earlier this year, we set a new goal to deliver safe water access to 100 million people by 2030; and have invested in new programs focused on helping people combat COVID-19 and establish more resilient water infrastructure in its wake. In India, for example, we’re working with WaterAid to construct toilets, train schoolteachers and childcare workers as hygiene experts, and increase access to water in rural farming communities. In Brazil, we’re working with Habitat for Humanity to install 280 new handwashing stations in 20 cities and aiming to reach 90,000 people with handwashing, sanitation and hygiene education.

However, no single program or company can solve the water crisis alone. For the billions of people living in water-stressed communities around the world, this work can mean the difference between life or death — and to reach the scale of impact necessary to combat COVID-19 as well as the long-term threat of climate change, the focus needs to be on sustainable programs communities can own for generations to come.

As we celebrate World Water Week 2020, I invite you to consider one of the key themes of this year’s conference: “resilience.” How can we take this moment of global turmoil and learn from it? What can the COVID-19 crisis teach us about how to prepare our global water systems for future pandemics, climate change and a growing world population?

Though the water crisis is long-standing and multifaceted — with impacts spanning public health, food systems, and economies — the coronavirus has elevated this conversation onto the global stage more than ever before. It is incumbent upon those of us with experience working in this space to keep it there — to turn these conversations into new programs and scalable partnerships that both combat COVID-19 and ensure water security for communities around the world.