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COVID-19: the role of the Water Convention and the Protocol on Water and Health

The Water Convention and the Protocol on Water and Health jointly serviced by WHO-Europe and UNECE help countries by promoting the availability of safe water for all within countries and across borders and sectors.

As of 16 March 2020, all meetings and activities under the Water Convention and the Protocol on Water and Health are being either held virtually or postponed or reconceptualized. The secretariat is working to explore opportunities for organising capacity-building activities online. While the secretariat works remotely, we remain responsive to demands and requests by phone and email (water.convention@un.org and protocol.water_health@un.org).

Protocol on Water and Health: recovery, preparedness and response to possible future epidemics

The provision of safe and sufficient water and adequate sanitation and hygiene is key to protecting human health during the infectious disease outbreaks, such as also COVID-19. Frequent handwashing according to appropriate hygiene standards require a continuous supply of safe water, and sanitation systems that are operational, including under challenging conditions, such as due to a changing climate.

UNECE-WHO Regional Office for Europe Protocol on Water and Health is a legally-binding agreement that brings together the environment and health dimensions and supports countries in setting, implementing and monitoring intersectoral national objectives in the areas of water, sanitation, hygiene (WASH) and health, strengthening national capacity for surveillance of drinking-water quality and management of water-related disease outbreaks in accordance with Article 8 of the Protocol, and promoting the provision of safe WASH services for all in all settings, including in schools, health care facilities and communities.

The well-established pan-European convening platform joining environment/water and health professionals and decision-makers as well as a range of tools and guidance developed under the Protocol could be used during the recovery phase and beyond to prepare for and prevent possible future spread of this and other infectious diseases, while ensuring that vulnerable groups of population (people living in informal settlements, homeless, prisoners, elderly, people with disabilities, migrants, refugees, low-income people, etc.) are not left behind.

Indeed, Parties to the Protocol have a legal obligation to provide access to safe water for “all members of the population, especially those who suffer a disadvantage or social exclusion”. A methodology for self-assessing current challenges that prevent governments from ensuring universal access and for developing action plans to address inequities is a concrete tool developed under the Protocol to progressively realize the human rights to water and sanitation and therefore improve the governance and policy framework needed to develop an inclusive and effective response to possible future epidemics.

The equitable access to water and sanitation related activities carried out under the Protocol can support governments to be prepared and respond to pandemics such as the COVID-19, by further taking into account those left behind in access to water and sanitation. More information is available here.

Activities under the Protocol are implemented in the following technical areas:
•    Improving governance for water and health through target setting and periodic reporting;
•    Prevention and reduction of water-related diseases;
•    Institutional water, sanitation and hygiene;
•    Small-scale water supplies and sanitation;
•    Safe and efficient management of water supply and sanitation systems;
•    Equitable access to water and sanitation;
•    Increasing resilience to climate change.

Relevant Guidance tools under the Protocol on Water and Health

Water Convention: supporting recovery and prevention

The timely and sufficient availability of water of adequate quality is a prerequisite for the provision of safe water, sanitation and adequate hygiene and for tackling possible impacts of the COVID-19 crisis, including poverty, economic downturn, food and energy insecurity and political instability. Sixty per cent of global freshwater flow comes from transboundary basins. The Water Convention provides a unique global legal and intergovernmental global framework for peaceful and cooperative management of transboundary water resources and allows to prevent potential tensions between countries and to prevent transboundary impacts such as pollution. For example, it includes provisions for early warning across borders, joint monitoring and assessment, mutual assistance etc. The following activities and tools under the Water Convention support recovery and prevention:

  • Measures that countries need to take in order to tackle the COVID-19 crisis and for the subsequent recovery may increase pressures on transboundary water resources. Also, the crisis may lead to local or transboundary tensions and conflicts, migration and lower interest in and financing for cross-border activities. The Water Convention supports countries to develop or strengthen transboundary water agreements and joint institutions as key instruments to discuss transboundary water management, including water quantity, water quality and health aspects. Transboundary cooperation, in particular river basin organizations can play an important role in coordinating and supporting actions by riparian countries for COVID-19 recovery and prevention of future crisis; some of them already have health and mutual assistance in their mandate. Two activities in 2020–2021 support this area of work: the elaboration of a Checklist for developing transboundary agreements and the development of a Handbook on water allocation in transboundary context.
  • Climate change may aggravate the consequences of the COVID-19 crises, increase water scarcity and make adaptation in transboundary basins even more vital. The Water Convention helps transboundary basins to adapt to climate change through capacity building activities organized at the global level and support provided to specific basins in development and implementation of transboundary adaptation strategies and plans. These activities also promote better resilience of countries, basins and people to prevent future emergencies, as they address the projected variety in water resources quantity and quality and increase linkages between transboundary water cooperation, climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction. A dedicated workshop on water, climate change, health and disasters is planned on 1-2 October 2020.
  • New challenges for information exchange and monitoring of transboundary rivers arise due COVID-19, since timely availability of water of adequate quantity and quality becomes even more important, requiring up-to-the-standards monitoring. Performant monitoring and effective information exchange helps to address emerging health concerns linked to water quality. The activities on data and information exchange and several guidance documents on monitoring and assessment developed under the Water Convention help to improve harmonized monitoring of waters (measuring, sampling, etc.) to ensure adequate and consistent information to inform decision-making in transboundary basins.
  • Financing access to water and sanitation and transboundary water cooperation are increasingly important to prevent future crisis. At the same time, the crisis is likely to impact on the availability of financial resources to support transboundary water cooperation processes. In 2020, the Water Convention prepares a background study on financing transboundary water cooperation and will organise a global workshop on this topic on 16-18 December 2020.
  • In countries of Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia, the EU Water Initiative National Policy Dialogues on Integrated Water Resources Management and on Water Supply and Sanitation, implemented under the programmes of work of the Water Convention and the Protocol on Water and Health, provide platforms for regular dialogue on water management, water and sanitation issues, hygiene and water-related diseases. In 2020–2021, the National Policy Dialogue steering committees, bringing together national water, health, environment, finance and other ministries, will discuss measures needed in the water sector and beyond for COVID-19 recovery, as well as prevention of and preparedness to similar outbreaks in the future.

In the phase of recovery, effective cooperation across different sectors can go a long way to improve the effectiveness of the response, as well as to avoid possible tensions. In particular, the way shared water resources are used will likely be impacted by the evolution of energy and food markets and changes in production. More than ever, Governments will be prioritizing securing supply and affordability of these resources to all citizens, inclusing those who are vulnerable. Regional cooperation across sectors during and after the crisis can ensure that these strategic decisions come with minimal trade-offs and exploit to the maximum possible synergies. The Task Force on the Water-Food-Energy-Ecosystems Nexus under the Water Convention provides a global platform to share experience on intersectoral cooperation in transboundary contexts. The next meeting will be held from 22 to 23 October 2020.

Relevant Guidance tools under the Water Convention