27 Mar 2020 15:15 IST

Virus makes water shortage everyone’s problem

Washing hands requires clean water, yet more than two billion people globally lack access to it

Handwashing has never been so popular. It’s one of the main ways to avoid catching Covid-19, which is why Unilever and the UK government on March 26 committed soap, bleach and 100 million pounds to educate 1 billion people about it. Celebrities like Gloria Gaynor and Hugh Jackman have posted videos encouraging viewers to get scrubbing, and turn the tap off when they’re done. It might look like an invitation to use a precious natural asset — but it could also bump shortages, especially in the developing world, up the agenda.

Water doesn’t have an easily understandable target like climate change, where a common goal is to stop the temperature from breaching 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. Even then, targets are often far in the future and lack specifics. Big investor alliances — like Climate Action 100+, which Larry Fink’s BlackRock recently joined — are cajoling companies to act, but have yet to figure out how to deal with recalcitrant polluters like Exxon Mobil.

Big companies have spoken out about water risk too — helped by initiatives like United Nations’ World Water Day, which happened on March 22. Two coalitions have sprung up in the past week, one corralling companies, the other investors and banks. As welcome as these are, their ranks contain the usual suspects, like Anheuser-Busch InBev, Gap and New York, Californian and Swedish state pension plans.

Covid-19 could help broaden such groups’ appeal. Washing hands requires clean water, yet more than 2 billion people globally lack access to it, according to the UN. Industrial and agricultural pollution either makes that worse or increases the cost of treating it. Such horrendous numbers are even scarier during a global pandemic. Providing access to clean water will cost almost $420 billion a year over the next decade, or some 0.5 per cent of global GDP, reckons the World Resources Institute.

If that didn’t feel affordable before, it may now. When a lack of clean water causes a cholera outbreak or food shortage in a poor country, say, it’s easy for rich-world policymakers and consumers to see it as someone else’s concern. When what’s at stake is a highly contagious virus capable of crossing the globe, water shortages anywhere become everyone’s problem.

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