This is Eileen Wray-McCann for Circle of Blue. And this is What’s Up with Water, your “need-to-know news” of the world’s water, made possible by support from people like you.
Israel’s head of cybersecurity has confirmed that the country thwarted a major cyberattack last month. The target: Israel’s water systems. The Associated Press reported that whoever is behind the attack is presumed to have connections to Iran, but Yigal Unna, the Israeli official, did not name the perpetrators in his remarks at a digital security conference. Unna did say that the water system attack could mark a turning point in cyberwarfare because of the potential consequences for human health. He said if the plot had succeeded, lack of water during the pandemic would inflict immense harm on the civilian population. In his video address, Unna offered few details about the attack, saying only that it could have disrupted chemical levels in the water. The attack is the latest digital confrontation between Israel and Iran. A decade ago, Israel deployed a digital bug called Stuxnet that attempted to compromise Iran’s nuclear program.
In Argentina, parched rivers are affecting trade. Reuters news service reports that cargo ships are running aground because water levels in the Parana River are at their lowest in 50 years. The river is a major shipping route for Argentina and Paraguay. Analysts say that exports of grain and livestock feed could be disrupted through September, when seasonal rains are expected to boost water levels. The river in the city of Rosario is usually 12 feet deep at the end of May, but last week it measured less than 3 feet.
Around the world, handwashing is seen as a frontline defense against the novel coronavirus. But for many people, it’s not an option. A new study found that about 2 billion people lack access to handwashing facilities with soap and water. That’s a quarter of the planet’s population without this basic health protection. The study found that regions suffering with the least access are sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and the Caribbean. In 46 countries, half or more of the population did not have soap and water for handwashing. The study was conducted by researchers at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. It was published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.
This week Circle of Blue reports on how the global coronavirus pandemic is doubly disastrous to water utilities abroad.
The pandemic, now in its third month, is deepening a financial crisis for water utilities in low- and middle-income countries. Many of these service providers face both drastic cuts in revenue and rising costs for responding to the public health emergency. Health and finance experts worry that the effects of ballooning utility deficits could reverberate long after the virus subsides. They say that inadequate utility revenue and national financial distress can undermine the widespread progress made in access to drinking water over recent years. They add that the financial stress could jeopardize any hope of achieving loftier goals of universal access set by the United Nations for the next decade.
About 785 million people still lack piped water in their home or have wells that are at risk of contamination. But according to UN and World Health Organization data, over the last 20 years, some one and half billion people have gained access to basic drinking water services. These developing utility systems have been dealt a shocking blow by the coronovirus pandemic.
Joel Kolker is the lead water supply and sanitation specialist at the World Bank Water Global Practice. He says that the most vulnerable utilities are hit with a one-two punch: plummeting revenue and soaring operating costs. He told Circle of Blue, “The consequences are even bigger than the water utilities… It’s really a question of how are we going to keep the taps running in this environment?” Kolker said that the numbers are not good. He’s seen utility revenues drop between 10 and 50 percent.
Jeff Goldberg is the director of the Center for Water Security, Sanitation and Hygiene at the U.S. Agency for International Development. Goldberg is also concerned that water service — essential in battling the coronavirus — will suffer from the financial fallout. He referenced a survey by the Water Service Providers Association of Kenya that found that revenue collection is down by 70 percent among its members.
Several factors explain the declines. Countries in Africa, Asia, South America, and elsewhere went into lockdown starting in March or earlier to slow the virus. Businesses shuttered and factories closed. Water use in the commercial and industrial sector plunged. That started a ripple effect.
Kolker citied figures from IBNet, a water utility data site, and said that the global average water use is typically 70 percent residential and 30 percent commercial. After months of economic seizure, the split is now more like 82 percent residential and 18 percent commercial.
Having commercial water use drop by nearly half is a huge problem for some utilities in low- and middle-income countries. The precise effect depends on a utility’s water rates and funding sources, but many utilities try to keep residential services affordable by putting higher tariffs on business customers. Less income from selling water to cement factories and office parks means less money to serve neighborhoods.
Even utilities in wealthy countries are not immune to the downturn. Of the utilities that responded to an American Water Works Association survey in April, about 40 percent had cut back on repairs and 30 percent expected to reduce their capital construction.
Revenue is also dropping because national governments, such as those in Kenya, Ghana, and elsewhere have put water at the frontlines of their pandemic response. They have ordered utilities to support public health by continuing service to people who do not pay their bills and providing water via tankers and other means to as many people as possible. These orders are important from a disease-fighting perspective, but worrisome for those who pay attention to financial statements. The effects could extend for months or years if recessions and unemployment make revenue collection difficult politically, even when the virus abates. Goldberg told Circle of Blue,“We’re very, very concerned about the longer-term financial solvency of these utilities, particularly smaller-scale water and sanitation providers, due to these mitigation orders.”
At the same time, costs have increased as utilities spend more on disinfection, protective gear, and worker safety. To identify utilities at risk, USAID is conducting financial stress tests of large water providers in Kenya, Mozambique, and Zambia, with the possibility of expanding to other countries. The World Bank is developing rapid assessment tools to guide utility leaders and government ministers. If Kolker’s experience is indicative, financial stress, in its various forms, will be evident across the board. The World Bank’s water program works with 65 countries, and Kolker has been talking with utilities and ministers in all of them. “They’re all having problems,” he said. “No one has told me everything is running smoothly.”
Not all utilities in low- and middle-income countries are having the same experience, however. The Asian Development Bank works with more than three dozen countries from the Black Sea to the Pacific Ocean. According to its specialists, none of its client water utilities have requested financial support. The bank’s analysts believe that revenue impacts will be moderated by two factors: that people still need to use water even in a lockdown, and that water tariffs are rather low in South Asia, so many people can still pay the tariff even with less household income.
For those that do need help there are a few options. National governments can fill the gap. For example, the president of Ghana declared that the government would cover the water bills of all residents for the months of April, May, and June. If national governments will not commit those resources, other options include aid agencies and international lenders. USAID has an annual budget of about $400 million for water and sanitation programs, and Goldberg said that the agency is trying to adapt those funds to its coronavirus response. It is working with local partners to extend service to vulnerable communities and to ensure continued supplies such as chlorine, fuel, and spare parts. The World Bank, meanwhile, has pledged $160 billion in grants and loans over the next 15 months. In addition, 73 countries can ask to have loan repayments suspended during the emergency in order to redirect those funds toward national health and social programs.
In Kolker’s mind, the multi-angled approach is crucial to ensuring that utilities withstand this period of upheaval. He said “An emergency at this scale is going to run on for a sustained period. So I think this is not one of these things where we can look to the utility to fix it. Has to be a broader discussion.”
And that’s What’s Up With Water from Circle of Blue, which relies on your support for independent water news and analysis. Please visit circleofblue.org and make a difference through your tax-deductible donation.
Eileen Wray-McCann is a writer, director and narrator who co-founded Circle of Blue. During her 13 years at Interlochen Public Radio, a National Public Radio affiliate in Northern Michigan, Eileen produced and hosted regional and national programming. She’s won Telly Awards for her scriptwriting and documentary work, and her work with Circle of Blue follows many years of independent multimedia journalistic projects and a life-long love of the Great Lakes. She holds a BA and MA radio and television from the University of Detroit. Eileen is currently moonlighting as an audio archivist and enjoys traveling through time via sound.