Covid-19 and the Global Water Shortage


Kirstin Brünjes,


Wars, diseases, famine and natural disasters. The list of humanitarian emergencies around the world presents humanity with global challenges.

Related SDGs

Covid-19 has been all over the news for the past two years, leaving little room for other disaster coverage. One of the latter being, the so far ignored, global water crisis.



"The water crisis is well known, but still a blind spot on the climate agenda"
Philipp Wagnitz, Freshwater Officer at WWF Germany

Water supply is a pressing issue in every respect because all crises and disasters of our time have one common challenge: water. Water lacking in war zones, in the recovery and prevention of diseases, and in periods of drought when no plants can grow without rain.

But what if two crises create conflicts of interest? The links between water scarcity and COVID-19 are only now becoming clear: hygiene is the first order of business to contain bacteria and viruses such as Covid-19. This is already a major problem for communities in poorer regions of the world, with high water scarcity, exacerbated by theCovid-19 pandemic. In the face of the latter, countries with more abundant access to water are being encouraged to use the resource more sustainably. The question now is, how to meet the demands of both crises. How do we strike a balance between protecting against Covid-19 and managing our precious water resources?

Hygiene begins with water

In response to the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a set of public guidelines to implement as prevention measures to halt the spread of coronavirus. Washing hands, physical distancing, and household cleaning were highlighted activities to flatten the epidemiological curve. These measures already pose a challenge for people with no access to water and soap. However, according to UNICEF, about 4 billion out of close to 8 billion people lack access to safe sanitation and about 3 billion people lack clean water and soap to wash their hands.

The United Nations declared access to water a human right in June 2010. Since then, it has become an even bigger challenge in the face of corona and climate change.

"Groundwater is threatened by human activities."

-Dr. John Cherry, groundwater expert

Climate change throws the Earth's water cycle out of balance with extreme weather events, causing floods, droughts and heatwaves. At the same time, water consumption has increased sixfold over the past 100 years due to the growing world population, economic changes and shifting consumption habits.

Anyone who thinks that water access and, consequently hygiene are not a problem for the northern regions of the world is wrong. Here are two examples of what is in store for us in the future:

1. The results of the Great British Rain Paradox survey reveal that 72% of the UK population believe the UK has enough groundwater. However, the island nation's Environment Agency reports that in 25 years, England will not have enough water to meet the needs of its population. Due to the consequences of climate change combined with population growth, the country is facing an "existential threat,” according to Sir James Bevan at the Waterwise conference in London.

In Germany, too, the soil is already historically dry. A representative water consumption study by the Institute for Social-Ecological Research (ISOE) in Frankfurt and Hamburg water provides valuable insights into the behaviour of private households around water usage in Hamburg. One result of the study: Corona has increased the water consumption of Hamburg`s residents. To avoid drastic measures such as rationing, the Hanseatic city appeals to private households, agriculture and industry to use water more sparingly.

We must be ready to do all it takes

Examples of refreshing solutions:

  • Closed water loops: Less an innovation than a measure since 1860, thanks to Napoleon III, Baron Haussmann and engineer Eugène Belgrand, Parisian buildings were equipped with a modern water treatment system. This treatment system purifies the wastewater and returns it to the building's circulation system.

  • Water, sanitation and hygiene: WASH initiatives are measures implemented by humanitarian organizations, such as UNICEF, in countries with poor water infrastructure. They involve teaching basic sanitation and hygiene skills to communities and school children.

  • Technologies- The air is full of water because it goes through a constant cycle in the atmosphere: it evaporates from the earth's surface and rises into the atmosphere with warm winds, condenses into clouds and then falls back to land in the form of rain or snow. Innovative start-ups make use of the water cycle - to filter water molecules from the air and transform them into clean drinking water.

The bottom line

The links between water scarcity and Covid-19 are only beginning to emerge:

  1. Contaminated drinking water and poor hygiene are the leading causes of the spread of dangerous pathogens.

  2. Water scarcity is, therefore a significant multiplier for the spread of deadly pathogens such as Covid-19.

  3. Diseases are more likely to be prevented with improved sanitation and therefore one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)is dedicated to provide access to safe drinking water and sanitation for the entire world population (SDG 6).

  4. However, the world is still far from achieving this goal, as "785 million people were still drinking contaminated water in 2017 and 2 billion did not have their own toilets" (UNICEF).

  5. Climate change is also having a severe impact on global rainfall, with more than four billion people worldwide experiencing at least one month of water scarcity per year.

  6. Water scarcity is also an emerging issue in northern regions of the world, which have largely been unaffected by it in the past. However, recent studies highlight that there is already a historic shortage of water in these regions too.

When we all act more sustainably together, we change our impact on the environment and thus also influence the future of the Earth. Through the conscious use of resources (appreciation for water) and a humanitarian mindset, we can make the world a better place.

Want to know more about water use and reduction? Then check out our complete SDG 6 water blog series!

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