Water security for COVID-19 response and recovery: Lessons from research in South Asia

July 6th, 2020

The spread of COVID-19, the urgency to routinely wash our hands and disinfect surfaces highlighted the importance of access to clean water supply across South Asia. The pandemic crisis and water security are intricately connected. Unfortunately, it has also exposed the limits of existing water supply infrastructure and strategies for large urban areas as well as small towns and rural households. More than half of the population of Afghanistan (22 million or 59 per cent), Bangladesh (107 million or 66 per cent) and Nepal (15 million or 53 per cent) do not have handwashing facilities with soap and water.

The situation in Pakistan (80 million or 39 per cent) and India (542 million or 40 per cent) is not much better. Their water crisis has been made worse by returning migrant family members, many of whom lost jobs in foreign countries or cities. Many more will return to the villages soon. In Bangladesh alone, an estimated two million workers travelled back to villages since March 2020. This is creating a surplus labour pool in the smaller towns and villages. Governments are trying to engage this surplus labour in agriculture, causing increased water demand. As governments in the region try to address critical economic challenges, they are finding it difficult to invest in already stretched water supply infrastructure. The risk is a reversal of hard-fought gains to improve lives – and the overall health – of the most vulnerable throughout South Asia.

The fight against COVID-19 in South Asia is a fight for access to clean water.

As the countries and development partners come to terms with understanding the pandemic-related water security and water supply conundrum, this is a good time to revisit the important lessons learned from Australia’s Sustainable Development Investment Portfolio (SDIP). Here, we present three important points to consider for the COVID-19 response and recovery over the coming years, targeting the vulnerable population in large cities as well as rural and smaller towns.

Supplying clean water to households will depend on water system management

Agriculture land use in Nepal. Photo credit: Tanya Doody
Agriculture land use in Nepal. Source: Tanya Doody, CSIRO

Water system management is critical for urban water supply. These terraced rice paddies are on the fringe of an urban area in Nepal. Photo credit: Tanya Doody, CSIRO

Water system management and water supply are intricately linked. Ensuring water supply to households means protecting and restoring headwater regions and allocating basin water resources to the competing demands of households, industries and agriculture. SDIP research in Pakistan and Nepal has highlighted that headwater regions are badly degraded due to a combination of drivers. Deforestation of the upstream catchments, landslides and clearing of riverbanks are depositing eroded soil into waterways; upstream water diversions for agriculture are reducing water supply; mining, industrial activities and agriculture are polluting headwater sources; unplanned road construction is disrupting natural drainage; climate change puts further stress on water systems; household waste (chemicals, biosolids etc.) contaminates the water supply; and over exploitation of groundwater depletes water resources.

For example, in Pakistan, about 170 million people living in the lower Indus plains rely on the waters of the River Indus and the associated groundwater systems for irrigation and urban water supplies. SDIP research showed that sedimentation of major headwater storages (Punjab and Sindh) and widespread pollution has reduced the reliability of their water supply. Around 40 per cent of all reported diseases and deaths in Pakistan are attributed to poor water quality. Worsening extremes of climate, lower rainfall, inadequate storage (Pakistan can store only enough water for just 30 days of use) and increasing demand due to COVID-19 mean that the household water supply will deteriorate further unless reliable supply is ensured. A similar situation was found in the Kamala Basin of Nepal, where about 94 per cent of the available water is diverted for irrigation leaving little for cities and towns of the Basin.

These examples highlight that surface water and groundwater system management and urban water supply activities must recognise intricate linkages with one another. Projects that supply water to cities, towns and rural households must not only focus on water, sanitation infrastructure or hygiene behaviour change at the local scale, but also consider water system management as a whole.

Key to supplying clean water during and after the pandemic is understanding the water systems supporting seasonal and short-term water decision making (i.e. the ability to respond to climate shocks like floods and droughts), use of water budgeting and seamless information exchange between basin managers and urban water projects. There is a clear need to improve our understanding of the response to gender equality, disability and social inclusion (GEDSI) issues and provide actionable, pragmatic guidance to improve the lives of the vulnerable. At times of great instability like the COVID-19 pandemic, decisions regarding urban water supply will need to go beyond traditional supply and distribution assumptions of urban water planning. Failure to look at solutions from headwaters to downstream users will continue to threaten the urban water supply and will be a lost opportunity to put in place systems-level pandemic or disaster management infrastructure and practice.

Groundwater management is critical for water supply to cities, smaller towns and rural households

Most towns and rural households depend on groundwater. Photo credit: Shahriar Wahid, CSIRO

Groundwater is the main source of water supply to many cities, smaller towns and rural households across the region. Groundwater is critical in the fight against COVID-19. While the challenges of water supply to large cities are much talked about in the media, the plight of smaller towns and rural households also needs attention.

The pandemic showed that flows of food, goods, and resources between urban and rural areas are maintained by smaller towns. They are, unfortunately, also conduits for the flow of deadly diseases. Many of the inhabitants of these towns are the so-called ‘floating population’ who work as low skilled workers and migrant agricultural labourers. Usually, they co-habit in small rooms and do not have official or entitled access to water and sanitation services from the public systems. They face a particularly daunting challenge to access clean, drinkable water, let alone water for handwashing and personal hygiene, and rely on groundwater because it is more reliable than surface water in terms of quantity and quality and can be accessed closer to the household and townships.

SDIP research in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal documented evidence of depletion of groundwater resources and/or deterioration of water quality. These studies have identified a set of complex relationships underlying groundwater supply, quality and use. For example, in Bangladesh people living in cities and towns in some parts of the northwest region are facing serious domestic water shortages due to falling groundwater levels. The situation has put tremendous pressure on the women as they fetch water from afar. A similar situation can be observed in Pakistan and Nepal. For example, the mid-hills of Nepal have springs as the major water sources and many are drying up. In Bangladesh, our researchers uncovered the reasons for groundwater depletion, these included, reduced rainfall, declining deep drainage and increased pumping for irrigation. In Bangladesh we also surveyed households to understand the impact of groundwater declines and their coping strategies. We found that men and women farmers adapt differently to change. In another study in Bangladesh, we identified least-cost measures needed to elevate farm profitability sufficiently to ensure domestic production of a minimum acceptable level of food grain and nutrition security.

In Pakistan, we found that groundwater extraction generally exceeds recharge and groundwater tables are falling sharply. For example, the groundwater table is plunging by one metre every year in Pakistan’s second most populous city, Lahore. Here 3.9 million cubic meters of groundwater are extracted every day for the 13 million inhabitants of the city. A sharp decline in the fresh groundwater aquifer is causing saltwater intrusion from surrounding saline groundwater pockets and polluting the entire resource. However, in contrast to Bangladesh or Nepal, groundwater recharge in Pakistan is largely reliant on irrigation networks and irrigated fields fed by the Indus system. Supplying water to major cities, smaller towns and rural household in the Indus system will need careful assessment of district-level water availability and demand (while understanding its dependencies on overall river system functioning) and adoption of cohesive planning and management of surface water and groundwater.

SDIP research in Nepal’s flood plain areas showed that groundwater constitutes 85 per cent of the household domestic water supply. However, groundwater across many parts is contaminated by arsenic. Though there is little systematic research on the extent of arsenic contamination, several smaller local studies found arsenic above the WHO guideline value of 10 parts per billion in about 27.3 per cent of total groundwater tube wells. Ensuring water supply in these flood plain areas means understanding groundwater quantity as well as quality.

These examples and research findings highlight that water supply for cities, as well as smaller towns and rural households, cannot be achieved without a holistic focus on all uses of groundwater and the drivers underpinning recharge and quality of supply. Therefore, sustainable groundwater management is critical to ensure sustainable, safe drinking water supplies to cities, smaller towns and rural households of South Asia.

Water data is the key for response and recovery


Afghanistan WIS development roadmap. CSIRO & MEW (2020)

COVID-19 has shed new light on the importance of water data for addressing many of the pandemic’s challenges and health outcomes. A basic water information system is seen by experts as the first line of defence against pandemics. Ensuring hospitals and households have access to critical resources like water during crisis periods such as COVID-19 requires a robust water supply system.

There are two elements for this reasoning. First, as we found in Afghanistan, data on how much water is available in reservoirs or how much rain is expected are all key information for urban water planners and operators. This has become more important for large cities like Kabul, where demand has increased while many employees are unable to work. Second, in agrarian economies such as South Asia, understanding how much water is (and will be) available for allocation over the year provides critical information to enable governments to mount a large-scale response and recovery.

For example, improvement of Pakistan Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) capability to manage their time-series surface water (discharge) datasets and improving the seasonal water allocation capabilities of the Indus River System Authority (IRSA) using CSIRO’s Water Apportionment Accord tool (WAA) is helping federal and provincial agencies make informed decisions. This tool currently supports Pakistan’s seasonal water allocation – there is a dire need to extend it to include mid-season planning. These capabilities will help Pakistan respond to not only the pandemic crisis, but also unexpected climatic impact (e.g. flooding, droughts) and uneven water supplies between urban and rural areas.

In the northwest region of Bangladesh, the SDIP team is using state-of-the-art modelling to understand the sustainable level of groundwater use by different sectors (agriculture, domestic, industrial) for the current and future conditions including climate change, economic development, and population growth. This will provide knowledge and information for the National Water Management Plan of the Government of Bangladesh and revise and update necessary policies.

There are strong national interests to develop water information systems to allow better water allocation decisions in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal, both at political and technical levels. All countries recognise Australia’s leadership role internationally in information system development as critical to the transition from the ‘build and distribute’ urban water supply mode to modern sustainable ‘whole-of-the-system’ water management.

How CSIRO can help

Progress has been made in understanding the importance of water security for COVID-19 response and recovery, and what needs to be done to improve the stretched water supply situation in South Asia. Water management at the systems level, integrated groundwater management and provision of water data will be three critical elements to ensure that the economies boost their resilience. Although much is known in terms of challenges and opportunities in addressing these three elements of water and COVID-19 recovery linkage, it will take time for the countries to divert resources to address them.

CSIRO has done ‘breakthrough’ water research in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Afghanistan. We can identify hotspots of water insecurity and help governments to take stock of available water from different sources and allocate water to competing demands. This addresses the combined needs of the pandemic response and will re-start economies on strong footing. Given CSIRO’s scientific skill base and linkages with the South Asian governments, there is a real opportunity to apply CSIRO capability and knowledge for COVID-19 response and recovery.

An investment in South Asian water security will strengthen interest in Australia’s homegrown expertise in water reform, optimise the use of Australian decision support tools and disseminate tailored water information during times of crisis. The public diplomacy opportunity created through potential investments will contribute to the broadening of the important security partnership for Australia and wider trading relationships in the South Asian region.

Citation: Wahid S, MD Ahmad , AC Almeida, M Mainuddin, SM Cuddy, CE Brandon CE, S Jalilov (2020) Water security for COVID-19 response and recovery: Lessons from research in South Asia. CSIRO July 2020. https://research.csiro.au/sdip/water-security-for-covid-19-response-and-recovery-lessons-from-research-in-south-asia/