Are we ready for the next global health emergency?
Covid-19 is a wake-up call for us to understand that enhancing GDP per capita should not be the sole measurement for economic prosperity
As the global economy is reeling from Covid-19, it became increasingly clear how ill-prepared we are to deal with an emergency situation.
The rising global economy suddenly came to a halt. Every day new lives are being claimed by the virus. Families are losing their loved ones.
Covid-19 is a big lesson for us to understand that economic prosperity can do so little to save our lives. Now that the virus continues to spread across the world, people with limited access to clean water will suffer the most.
According to Unicef, three billion people around the world do not have access to basic hand-washing facilities at home.
Almost a billion people, who have access to piped water supply, experience partial or regular shutoffs of water supply which renders frequent hand washing quite difficult. In Bangladesh, around 65 percent of the population lack access to clean water.
The country has been ranked as the 25th most vulnerable country to Covid-19 emergency.
However, the poorer section of the country will bear the brunt of Covid-19 due to limited access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). About 9.9 million people live in poverty in Southwestern coastal region of Bangladesh. Of them, 5.9 million people are extremely poor and cannot bear the expenses of basic food.
About 2.5 million poor people (including 1.4 million extreme poor) are already experiencing a shortage of water for drinking and irrigation purposes in this part of the region. Besides, the impacts of climate change have deepened the water crisis.
Water and water sources are intricately associated with climatic factors and the detrimental impacts of climate change are causing inland and coastal flooding, saltwater intrusion into rivers and groundwater leading to a rise in salinity in the groundwater and the fresh-water ponds.
In addition, various climatic events such as cyclones and storm surges disrupt water and sanitation facilities. During cyclone Sidr, 11,612 hand tube wells and 7,155 ponds were fully or partially damaged in 12 highly affected districts.
Such disasters forced a third of households residing in high-risk areas to switch to contaminated and unclean water sources. Furthermore, a rise in sea level, uneven pattern of rainfall and high rates of evaporation are rendering the availability of water more variable and unpredictable.
Hence, limited access to a safe water supply is most likely to fuel the spread of Covid-19 in this part of the region.
Although the intrusion of salinity arising from the impacts of climate change has become apparent in most parts of the coastal regions, the status of salinity is not homogeneous. Mongla is experiencing a severe shortage of fresh water for a long time.
People do not have access to water for meeting their basic needs.
Prior to the outbreak of coronavirus, BRAC's Climate Change Programme (CCP) in collaboration with BRAC's WASH Programme has installed a Reverse Osmosis desalination plant at Mongla Business Management and Technical College in Mongla, Bagerhat district. It is a process through which salt content of the water is being minimised to get access to fresh drinking water, particularly for the poor people.
Previously, getting access to clean water was a strenuous work for the villagers. Almost, every day, they had to walk 1.5-2km to get access to drinking water from multiple sources. Collecting water from the village ponds was one of the common sources of water.
However, water from these ponds contains bacteria and other deadly pathogens which lead to water-borne diseases. Now, they can collect water according to their needs and do not have to collect water from any other sources. BRAC CCP is also planning to install a harvesting system at the household levels in Mongla which will further minimise the existing water crisis.
Amid the outbreak of coronavirus, the recent cyclone Amphan has aggravated the availability of clean water supply in the coastal regions. Thousands of water and sanitation services were disrupted. Many poor people have stored water beforehand for personal hygiene and drinking water purposes.
People from other adjoined villages are also getting access to water in these challenging times. Hence installation of such a plant has made the lives of people living close the college a lot easier.
Also, last year, 226,647 plants have been planted in four districts including Bagerhat, Kurigram, Rajshahi, Naogaon. Apart from other environmental benefits, trees also help to retain and increase the level of groundwater in that area. During these challenging times, measures like this should be extended in other parts of the country to restore the environment.
The world needs a new paradigm shift in the concept of economic development. Covid-19 is a wake-up call for us to understand that enhancing GDP per capita should not be the sole measurement for economic prosperity.
Climate change has already been recognised as the global health emergency by the experts and death tolls are already on the rise. Experts believe that cyclone Amphan is the product of climate change. And these climatic events are going to intensify. However, the impacts are rather insidious.
Tahmina Hadi is a Deputy Manager of Climate Change Programme, BRAC