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Fighting coronavirus & saving water

  • By Avinash Mishra

In the wake of the novel coronavirus outbreak, there is an urgent need to understand the importance of water management in India. Special attention is required on supply and management of essential goods like water. The problems of excreta from infected people; medical and pathological waste; and the residue generated in hospitals also need to be tackled. But first, we must understand the issue of survival of coronavirus in drinking water and wastewater.

According to WHO, Covid-19 is "not robust"-it’s less stable in the environment and more susceptible to oxidants such as chlorine. Conventional, centralised water-treatment methods that use filtration and disinfection could inactivate this virus. However, Covid-19 may be transmitted through the faecal-oral route. Thus, manual handling of faeces, which is unfortunately still practised in India, has to be strictly prohibited.

As India is battling this crisis, water scarcity can pose a serious threat to policymakers. Due to increased awareness, people are washing their hands about 5-7 times a day and disinfecting their houses at least once in 2-3 days. Due to this, average water consumption has increased nearly 1.5 times. For example, in Delhi, the average water consumption varies from 150 lpcd to 175 lpcd; now, it will accelerate. With our already strained resources, it will be difficult for service providers to provide water in adequate quantum to everyone. Moreover, a great volume of disinfectants is being used, which creates risks of leaks. The composition of grey and wastewater from normal households has changed due to frequent use of disinfectants. Safe disposal of wastewater will be another issue for India, which has a deplorable sewer network.

In this context, India has to undertake some reformative measures. First, we must reduce misinformation regarding the reliability of the quality of water supplied through utilities so people can reduce their dependency on packaged water. People can be advised not to leave the tap running while washing hands. They can also alter between washing hands and sanitising them. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers contain varying amounts and types of alcohol-between 60% and 95%, and usually isopropyl alcohol, ethanol (ethyl alcohol) or n-propanol. Alcohol is known to kill most germs. Diluted household bleach solutions can be used for sanitisation, if appropriate for the surface.

The focus needs to be on treatment of pharma residue. Wastewater from medical facilities needs to be monitored and only disposed of in drains connected to a septic system or sewer or soak pits. The state of the environment must be monitored closely, to avoid any eventual secondary disaster, and potential impact assessments should be made timely.

The safe disposal of medical waste is also a challenge for our country. After the outbreak of the disease in China, Wuhan city doubled its capacity to handle medical waste to over 100 tonne per day and the whole province of Hubei now can handle around 370 tonnes of medical waste a day. For China as a whole, 258 local treatment stations in 31 provinces are making great efforts to achieve "same day in and same day clean". Wuhan uses a gasification technique that is said to ensure safe incineration with no odorous smoke or wastewater. In India, where waste-handling methods are still in a nascent stage, we have to gear up for this new kind of waste handling.

Third, given the rapid increase in population and climate change, we must prepare ourselves for such outbreaks in the future. As for long-term measures, a balance between water supply and demand has to be created by curbing extra demand and supplementing supply. India can learn Seoul and Wuhan. Access to the sewer system in Seoul stands at 100%; it has a robust water-metering system.

Seoul Water System monitors water quality in real-time 24 hours a day, from source to faucet. Similarly, Wuhan was declared one of China’s first 16 "sponge cities". The ample water provided from surface and ground sources (which was meeting all potable quality standard) made it easy for the citizens to wash their hands, maintain hygiene in homes, streets, markets and in the city. This was a significant step in the fight against Covid-19. India, which is already facing water scarcity, needs to conserve traditional water bodies, make water supply leak-proof and ensure 100% metering in at least urban areas. There is a need to establish a supplementary resource system to cater to emergency requirements.

(Mishra is adviser, Sharma, Chandra and Panwar are Young Professionals, NITI Aayog. Views are personal)