Water and sanitation in the COVID-19 pandemic

Water and sanitation in the COVID-19 pandemic

FGV CERI director Joisa Dutra and researcher Juliana Smiderle wrote the article entitled "Water and sanitation in the COVID-19 pandemic - challenge and opportunity" for the April 2020 edition of Conjuntura Econômica, magazine of the Brazilian Institute of Economics (IBRE).

Water and sanitation in the Covid-19 pandemic - challenge and opportunity

Coping with the Covid-19 crisis poses unprecedented challenges and places public and private administrators in seas not yet navigated. Governments have been forced to make decisions and respond at very high speed and with very limited information. The first measures are in the health field, to slow down spreading and contamination. Thus, time can be saved to develop treatment and prevention protocols. Then, the supply and demand shocks produced by measures of social distance and isolation require quick responses to mitigate economic impacts. In developing countries and emerging economies, these problems are compounded by the lack of fiscal space. As a consequence, responses may be slower, contributing to greater transmission and greater lethality, already aggravated by the lesser capacity to treat the health system.

Fewer health expenditures and lower spending effectiveness have produced a well-known picture of scrapping the health system, less hospital beds, a shortage of doctors and - not least - less access to water, sanitation and hygiene - in English, WASH (water , sanitation and hygiene). Brazil obviously fits this description. Despite the recognition of the priority of the theme - since 2016 it has been designed and works to approve a new legal framework for sanitation - advances are delayed. But the crisis is not. And catches us unprepared.

In addition to treatment, prevention is an essential measure to contain the spread of the virus. In this sense, the World Health Organization (WHO) highlights that the best way is to maintain good hygiene habits, including washing your hands with soap and water frequently. In this pandemic scenario, it is even more evident how the WASH sector is extremely important for the entire population.

Thinking about the answers that the sector needs to give, it is interesting to learn from discussions around the world. In a recent webinar, promoted by the organization Sanitation and Water for All, recommendations were made to face the crisis in environments subject to restrictions on access to water, sanitation and hygiene3. In summary, the meeting left four recommendations: (i) communication is essential; (ii) it is necessary to promote coordination for decision making; (iii) consider side effects; and (iv) guarantee the water supply for the population.

An important lesson is that communication must be defined with the target audience of the message in mind. Although we live in a digital age, which facilitates the dissemination of information, many still lack access to the internet. As an example of strategies to ensure the effectiveness of communication, in Cambodia and Côte d'Ivoire governments have developed folders with stories for children and sound cars that convey messages to the most remote areas with information on symptoms and ways of preventing the disease.

Finding coordination is difficult. We have seen this in Brazil with cases of mayors and governors determining the suspension of electricity bills, or even the closure of airports, which are, by law, the competences of the Union. It certainly does not help the position of the Presidency of the Republic in disagreement with the WHO recommendations. Coordination and alignment of government actions in their various spheres is necessary at any time. It is vital for quick, effective and efficient decision-making in a crisis like the one we are experiencing.

Directly related to coordination is the recommendation to consider side effects in the preparation of emergency plans by countries. In addition to the impacts on the population's life and the health system, Covid-19 also affects the economy. Measures such as social isolation and paralysis of economic activities, which aim to reduce the transmission of the virus, cause massive losses of jobs and income; that is, the economic slowdown also produces victims. In this sense, it is imperative to guarantee the continuity of essential services for the entire population, such as water supply. It is worth mentioning that the maintenance of this service must take place both by network (usual in urban centers), and through alternative solutions (in rural areas and informal settlements, for example).

It is recommended that, during this pandemic period, the interruption of the water supply service due to default be suspended. Such a measure has already been taken for electricity services by the National Electric Energy Agency (ANEEL) 4. The rationale is to support disease prevention through maintaining hygiene habits, which depend on access to water. At the same time, it is suggested that there be support for vulnerable groups, due to expectations of reduced income, and therefore the ability to pay, due to the retraction in economic activity. To guarantee the stability of the service provision, it is also necessary to preserve cash generation for companies in the sector as much as possible.

In Colombia, for example, what is being adopted is a guarantee of the minimum subsistence volume - six cubic meters - for the entire residential population for at least 60 days. It means to say that the government will support, with public resources of already defined origin, this amount of water for the entire population. In addition, the government provided a credit line to cover companies' payroll.

In Brazil, State Basic Sanitation Companies (CESBs) are responsible for providing water and sewage services in about 70% of the municipalities5. So far, there is a certain alignment between states regarding the prohibition of cuts in services; however, there are variations in the benefits to users. In São Paulo, for example, it was established that those classified as low income are exempt from paying the invoices for the next three months - a measure that should be offset by a reduction in company expenses and budget adjustments6.

In Rio de Janeiro, in addition to the low-income group, small commercial users are also exempt for the same period implemented in São Paulo. In addition, the state governor also approved the extension of the payment of invoices for March and April for all users for 60 days7. It is worth noting that, unlike Colombia and São Paulo, the state of Rio de Janeiro has not indicated the source of public funds that will be used to cover these benefits.

The pandemic exacerbates our structural deficiencies, challenging our ability to contain Covid-19 contamination at present. However, the message of Sanitation and Water for All is clear: water, sanitation and hygiene are essential in mitigating and fighting the virus.

The economic crisis that is to follow will make it even more difficult to promote investments in sanitation. However, the urgency of this crisis presents an important opportunity: to approve the reform for the sector that is going through the National Congress. It thus contributes to achieving, not only in times of public health emergency, but throughout the future, universal access to such important services.

1 Professor at FGV EPGE and Director at FGV CERI.

2 Researcher at FGV CERI.

3 The Webinar “COVID-19 and WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene)”, organized by the organization Sanitation and Water for All, took place on March 26th. Available at:

4 ANEEL Normative Resolution No. 878/2020 forbids the suspension of electricity supply for all homes and essential services, for a period of 90 (ninety) days, among other points.

5 National Sanitation Information System (SNIS), 2018.

6 This was the decision of SABESP's Executive Board, to be approved by the Company's Board of Directors yet.

7 State Decrees No. 46,979 / 2020 and No. 46,999 / 2020


This article is part of the collection of FGV CERI publications related to COVID-19. See more at the Regulatory Monitor of the COVID-19 of FGV CERI.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the institutional opinion of FGV.