How water-centric investment can help in COVID-19 recovery

The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed our world. As we start to build back, how do we do so in a way that values water?

The COVID-19 pandemic has touched every corner of the planet, affecting lives and livelihoods in unforeseen ways. The OECD predicts that advanced economies will take until 2022 to recover, and for emerging economies it’s a much worse outlook: it could take South Africa until 2024, and Argentina until 2026. The Economic Commission for Africa has warned that the African region faces its first recession in 25 years, with output losses due to COVID-19 estimated to be US$99 billion.

But, in the post pandemic world, there is an opportunity to change. In our rebuilding – of economies, infrastructure, and societies – we can place water at the centre of decision-making.

Water and COVID

The origin of COVID-19 is disputed, but a leading theory is that the disease was zoonotic, meaning it jumped from animals to humans. Zoonotic diseases are becoming more common as ecosystems fail, forcing disease-carrying animals into human territories in search of food and shelter.

And poor stewardship of water-based ecosystems, like wetlands, swamps, and rivers, will make pandemics more likely, and harder to manage. So, governments, businesses and communities have a highly compelling reason to improve governance and management of these precious resources.

Building back with water

As the pandemic eases and we start to build back, we can – and should – place water at the heart of our efforts to protect those who need to rebuild their livelihoods. This will help protect against the emergence of future pandemics. Although it is hard to assign an exact value, investing in water also makes good economic sense.

Two key – and interrelated – approaches have been suggested as methods of reinvigorating the economy while valuing water: supporting water infrastructure and supporting water ecosystems.

Infrastructure spending

More than half the world will be living in areas of water stress by 2050. Water stress results in part from a lack of water in a region, as a result of drought or a reduction in aquifers, but many people live without easy access to water because of poor infrastructure. This might mean leaky pipes, or when supply is completely cut off by damage during conflict or extreme weather.  

Infrastructure spending has multiple, positive effects. It means, of course, that those who need water can access it, but it also means job creation. As we measure the economic impact of the pandemic on sectors from manufacturing and construction to hospitality and tourism, water infrastructure can help provide long term opportunities in regions affected by high unemployment. 

For economies hard-hit by COVID-19, there is extensive evidence that funding invested in water is money well spent. According to UNESCO, investment in small-scale projects providing safe water and basic sanitation could offer a return equivalent to 5% of the continent’s GDP. In Latin America, researchers found that an investment of US$1 billion in water infrastructure would lead directly to an additional 100,000 jobs

Even before the world was hit by the pandemic, the UN warned that global investment in water infrastructure would need to reach as high as $22.6 trillion by 2050 to meet the needs of the world’s growing population. Now, as national governments and the international community rally behind calls to ‘build back better’, there is an opportunity to place water at the heart of the recovery. 

While the COVID-19 crisis has starkly highlighted the need to improve water and sanitation systems, programmes which go further and implement integrated water resource management – such as the Nordic Development Fund’s initiative in the Sahel and Horn of Africa will bring even greater benefits.

Supporting water systems

Even as we take stock of COVID’s impact, leaders all over the world are working to mitigate the threats of the future – from new infectious diseases to climate change, economic stress, transnational conflict, extreme weather and wider environmental damage. One thing links them all: water.

By building good water governance into post-pandemic recovery plans, governments, businesses and communities have the opportunity to make themselves more resilient to this threat. 

Programmes which strengthen water systems at the macro level can help countries recover from the impact of COVID-19: there is ample evidence that spending at the level of watersheds yields impressive return on investment.

The Tana River delta in Kenya offers a compelling example: the OECD estimates that investment in better watershed management could deliver a return of US$21.5 million over 30 years, as well as savings in water and wastewater treatment for the city of Nairobi. In Brazil, research suggests the restoration of 4,000 hectares of native forest in São Paolo’s watershed could yield a 28% return on investment. The state of Queensland, in Australia, has linked economic support for farmers with better watershed management, reducing water consumption and runoff, thereby diversifying their income, increasing the value of their land and boosting employment.

Recovery will need to mean recovery in all aspects

Funding for such projects necessitate Governments to recognise the value of water, and in doing so, they will communicate the value of water to private investors. This will be a positive change, attracting capital investment and further contributing to the profile of water globally.

Recovering from a global pandemic was never going to be easy. But, by aligning our rebuilding with water positive investments, we can start to create a post-COVID world which has water, and all its benefits, at the centre.

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