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Can Countries in a Water Crisis Resist Coronavirus Spread?

Health + Wellness
Can Countries in a Water Crisis Resist Coronavirus Spread?
A woman scoops water in a dry riverbed near Kataboi village in remote Turkana in northern Kenya. Marisol Grandon / Department for International Development

By Raya A. Al-Masri

Different strategies for resisting the spread of the new coronavirus have emerged in different countries. But the one that has cut through everywhere is simple and, supposedly, can be done by anyone: "Wash your hands with water and soap for at least 20 seconds."



This advice takes plentiful safe water for granted, but in many parts of the world, clean fresh water isn't guaranteed. Where it is, it may be in scarce supply. What will happen in such places if and when the pandemic escalates and the need for proper sanitation grows ever more urgent?

According to the World Health Organization, frequent and thorough hand washing can help reduce your chances of contracting infectious diseases such as COVID-19. Worldwide statistics for 2017 revealed that poor sanitation and limited access to hand-washing facilities contributed to around 1.5 million deaths. Nearly 2.2 billion people are currently living without safely managed water outlets, and around 22% of healthcare facilities in the least developed countries lack basic water services.

Clean water and good hygiene is the absolute minimum that's needed to combat the spread of the new coronavirus. But in sub-Saharan Africa, the World Bank reported that around 75% of people living in rural areas live in homes that lack adequate facilities for hand washing. One charity working in the Western Province of Kenya found that 95% of the households they visited had no access to running water.

It's been known for a while that countries without a reliable system of supplying water to everyone are likely to be more vulnerable to infectious diseases. The mortality rates from diarrhea in 2017 were highest in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Here, unsafe drinking water and poor sanitation were the highest risk factors for developing the disease among people who are 70 years and older.

Likewise, 72% of deaths from diarrhea among children under five in 2016 were caused by unsafe water, mostly in drought-prone countries in southern Africa. But even places with a sufficient supply of clean water are likely to face an intolerable strain as frequent hand washing becomes essential.

A Tipping Point

In Jordan, where over 93% of people had access to safe water in 2015, a water sector official recently declared that demand for water has jumped by 40% since the government ordered people to stay home as part of a nationwide curfew. That's on top of a steady rise in water demand of 22% since 2011, as Syrian refugees have arrived, fleeing the civil war. The growing population has limited each individual's share of water in Jordan to less than 80 liters per day.

The sudden increase in water demand in countries where supply is already strained could cause widespread shortages. But in places where a regular, safe water supply doesn't exist, the risk of infection could multiply.

Like COVID-19, water scarcity is a global problem that needs collective action. There is no more urgent a time to address the world's water crisis than now, when people are constantly being reminded to use water to combat the spread of the virus.

Acting on climate change is one way to limit the droughts that are behind many surface-water shortages, as is reforming agriculture to reduce pumping for irrigation. Managing water sources as a commons, with access guaranteed to all, is equally important.

The COVID-19 health crisis has taught us so far that collective action is the proper way to address a common problem, if not the only one. This should compel researchers to do all they can to communicate their findings and expertise, to bridge the gap between the scientific community and everyone else. Sharing knowledge within the community in a more inclusive way would help others devise innovative solutions for protecting water sources, improving sanitation and developing hygiene projects.

Let the COVID-19 outbreak remind us all how important safe running water is in keeping us healthy, and spare a thought for those who cannot count on it always flowing. Ensuring that clean water and hygiene is a right guaranteed to all is an urgent demand for global justice, but it is also vital in preparing the world to resist the development of future pandemics.

Raya A. Al-Masri is a Ph.D. researcher in environment and sustainability at the University of Surrey.

Disclosure statement: Raya A. Al-Masri does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond her academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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