COVID-19 Lessons in Action

Maura Barry, interim Global Water Coordinator and Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator at USAID opened sessions by describing the untenable situation WASH service providers faced at the start of the pandemic.

At this year’s Stockholm World Water Week, USAID presented a two-part session on applying lessons from COVID-19 to future resilience challenges such as climate change. The sessions brought together policy makers and service providers, who shared lessons from the pandemic and described how those lessons can help build resilience to future climate shocks. 

Maura Barry, interim Global Water Coordinator and Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator at USAID, opened the two-part session, Applying WASH Lessons from COVID-19 to Future Resilience Challenges, by recognizing the impactful work of front line WASH professionals. 

“When the pandemic first hit, service providers...had to overcome enormous challenges just to meet basic needs...Given the role that water, sanitation and hygiene play in slowing the spread of disease and preparing economies to reopen safely, I think the global community expected extraordinary things from those service providers.” Maura Barry, interim Global Water Coordinator and Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator at USAID

In the first session, representatives from water service providers in Zambia and Brazil described the situation at the onset of the pandemic: an increased need for water and sanitation services, revenue loss due to business closures and emergency mandates, and health and safety risks for workers. Panelists discussed how, as information about COVID-19 transmission became clearer, the essential role of these utilities became more salient too. In short, water and sanitation utilities were asked to increase their output to respond to the crisis by providing this essential service, while managing income losses. Several speakers flagged how lessons learned in responding to operational challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic strengthened their resilience to future climate shocks. 

Speakers in this session included:

  • Maura Barry, Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator in USAID's Bureau for Resilience and Food Security and interim  Global Water Coordinator, USAID
  • Alyssa Boyer, Chief of Party, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Finance (WASH-FIN)
  • Vanessa Guenther, Communications Associate, Aquaya (representing Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Partnerships and Learning for Sustainability, or WASHPaLs)
  • Diana Makwaba, Managing Director, Nkana Water Supply and Sanitation Company Ltd.
  • Nishtha Mehta, Water and Sanitation Specialist, World Bank
  • Monica Porto, Director of Regional Systems, Companhia de Saneamento Básico do Estado de São Paulo S.A (SABESP)

Setting the stage for the discussion, Vanessa Guenther highlighted key takeaways from the WASHPaLS research on the ways in which the COVID-19 and climate crises have placed similar strains on the WASH sector and demonstrated the importance of retaining and applying the lessons we’ve learned since 2020. 

An unmistakable lesson from COVID-19 is that WASH systems are fragile and their fragility is laid bare by shocks…. [S]hocks to the WASH sector, whether due to COVID-19 or the ongoing climate crisis, present themselves as mirrored images, giving us the unique opportunity to learn lessons from either.” Vanessa Guenther, Communications Associate, Aquaya

Diana Makwaba, the first female CEO among Zambia’s 11 utilities, spoke about how COVID-19 forced her company to develop a flexible survival approach that would enable the utility to overcome COVID-19 and future climate shocks.

We embarked on a survival plan where we had to cut down on some costs, such as fuel. We had to use more IT, we had to reschedule some of our programs and reschedule some of our projects. [This] affected service but through our survival plan and our risk management plan we were able to still provide services.” Diana Makwaba, Managing Director for Nkana Water Supply and Sanitation Company Ltd.

"Diana Makwaba, Managing Director for Nkana Water Supply and Sanitation Company Ltd presents in front of a clean wall with an photo behind her. She is wearing glasses and a white blazer."
At Text Diana Makwaba, Managing Director for Nkana Water Supply and Sanitation Company Ltd. described how she led efforts to respond to the pandemic and maintained continuity of services despite the pandemic.

 

In the second session, panelists discussed policies related to water and sanitation that governments put in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The session included a summary of multi-country research that looked at policies and their impacts. Panelists reflected that, even with this research, more information is needed to understand whether or not these policies have succeeded in their goals.  While many governments have not yet had the time to reflect on what works and what doesn’t because they don’t have enough data to evaluate the policies, speakers made clear that the consequences of policies such as free water mandates must be fully considered in policy-responses to emerging shocks.

This session’s speakers included:

  • Jorge Alvarez-Sala, WASH Specialist, UNICEF
  • Maura Barry, Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator in USAID's Bureau for Resilience and Food Security and interim Global Water Coordinator, USAID
  • Vanessa Guenther, Communications Associate, Aquaya (representing WASHPaLS)
  • Engineer Kasenga Hara, Executive Secretary, Eastern and Southern Africa Water and Sanitation (ESAWAS) Regulators Association
  • Isabel Alvarez Murillo, Programme Officer, Water and Sanitation, Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI)
  • Sterenn Philippe, Water for Africa Through Leadership and Institutional Support (WALIS)
  • Yoram Sinyangwe, Managing Director, Lukanga Water Supply and Sewerage Company

“As COVID-19 has shown us, developing and implementing policy is often extremely complicated, especially in the face of urgent shocks.” Isabel Alvarez, Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) Programme Officer WASH.

 Isabel Alvarez, Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) Programme Officer WASH speaks in front of a light blue World Water Week digital  background with the logo in the upper right corner. She is wearing glasses and a purple button down shirt.
Isabel Alvarez, Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) Programme Officer WASH discussed the complicated context within which polices were made during the crisis.

In discussing the way forward, Engineer Kasenga Hara, Executive Secretary of Eastern and Southern Africa Water and Sanitation, emphasized the importance of a multi-stakeholder approach to support the utility during the remainder of the crisis and stressed the need for utilities to remain flexible to address immediate needs as they arise during a crisis and keep on top of needs to prepare for future shocks. 

“One thing we learned out of the pandemic...is that we had to work through a multi-stakeholder approach… In most countries across our region, the initiative to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic was led by the ministries of health. But the ministries of health did co-opt regulators and other agencies to try and help them… So we advocate always...to strengthen these multi-stakeholder approaches.” Engineer Kasenga Hara, Executive Secretary of Eastern and Southern Africa Water and Sanitation.

Speaking about the support that governments need in order to develop and implement more effective policies in the face of health and climate crises, Sterenn Philippe from Water for Africa Through Leadership and Institutional Support, emphasized the need for effective data collection and monitoring. strong coordination between response ministries, and capacity development of government officials, donors, and the WASH sector as a whole. 

“The climate crisis will increase the frequency and severity of emergencies and more of us are going to have to work in emergency settings and it’s important that we all learn from those who have experience responding to emergencies and we’re not starting from scratch.”  Sterenn Philippe, Water for Africa Through Leadership and Institutional Support 

See the full recordings of the sessions here and here