COVID-19 – reviewing the impacts on water use

© iStock / Stígur Már Karlsson _Heimsmyndir

Lledó Castellet of the IWA Statistics and Economics Specialist Group provides an assessment of how COVID-19 impacted the water sector.

Two years ago, the world was put under an exceptional situation because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The emergence of an unknown virus froze the biggest cities in the world, stopping lots of production processes and commercial activities, while citizens were locked down at home. Under these circumstances, our society had to face and adapt to this new situation, and the water sector was no exception. Despite the general halt to activities, the sector had to continue providing water and sanitation services while tackling the difficulties brought about by the pandemic, including a reduced workforce, difficulties in procuring supplies, changes in water demand patterns, and, in some cases, impacts on finances.

With the aim of drawing conclusions on the impacts that the COVID-19 pandemic had on the urban water sector, the International Water Association’s Statistics and Economics Specialist Group developed a study to analyse the use of water during the pandemic in several countries and cities, while providing insights on the impact on the finances of utilities and their long-term implications. To this purpose, data and information was collected from Belgium, Cyprus, Germany, Japan, Switzerland, Portugal, Romania, the Netherlands, and Singapore.

When it comes to analysing the water consumption patterns during the pandemic, it is not easy to come to general conclusions, as countries faced different restriction measures, which were enforced with different levels of severity and were experienced for varying durations. Besides this, there are other characteristics such as weather conditions, the temporal monitoring scale, or how users are classified, that differs from place to place, making it more difficult to compare the data from country to country. For this reason, for the purposes of the research, we adopted a qualitative, descriptive approach.

In Japan, 36% of utilities implemented tariff reduction, exemption and/or postponement of payment

Based on our data and observations, the effect of the pandemic and lockdowns on water consumption can be grouped into:

  • Changes over time and variations in water consumption peaks
  • Changes over space/sectors, highlighting a shift of water consumption between different users
  • Changes in the volume of water consumed

Temporal observations

With regards to temporal changes in water consumption, a delay in the morning peak was observed, along with a slight change in the timing of the evening peak. This can be explained by the fact that during the pandemic most people worked and studied from home and there was no need to commute, which resulted in people getting up later in the morning. In Limassol in Cyprus, which had the most restrictive social distancing measures applied from March to May 2020, there was a shift in residential consumption of about 1.5 hours in the morning in the month of April, compared with the months of April in the preceding three years; while the evening peak was slightly earlier, and water use declined slightly earlier. However, as the pandemic restrictions decreased at the end of 2020, the water consumption patterns got closer or equal to those of the previous years.

Spatial changes

Spatial changes in water demand are related to shifts in water use between different city areas and sectors. In general, during 2020 the use of non-domestic water decreased because of the reduction of the activities of many businesses. Meanwhile, the use of domestic water consumption increased as people spent more time at home.

Non-domestic water use reduced by up to 30% in Cyprus and 8-16% in Romania and Switzerland. The impact of the pandemic on water consumption can also be noticed in relation to tourist activity. In Lisbon, the month-on-month growth rate in the number of guest-stays in hotels in the Lisbon Metropolitan Area, and the month-on-month production growth rate in Portugal, shows that a lower production and near-zero tourism in April led to much lower water intensity (based on billed water use) in May (as meter readings and bill payments are done monthly, explaining the lag of one month in the data of the impact of these consequences). In July and August, water use rebounded along with an increase in hotel guests and production.

It is estimated that water use by households and small consumers in tourist areas of Germany decreased by 5.2%. The increase in water use in suburbs was significantly above the average in Germany because of the impact of working from home and the residential character of the suburbs.

In Portugal, a difference can be seen between predominantly urban, moderately urban and predominantly rural areas, where domestic water use increased respectively by 5.7%, 5.4% and 4.8%. In Lisbon domestic water use declined.

The city of Amsterdam in the Netherlands experienced a reduction in water use due to a sharp decline in the number of tourists and the closure of restaurants and the entertainment industry. In the northern city of Groningen there was a decline of water use in the city and an increase in the rest of the province because of the absence of students and office workers in the city and more people working from home. In contrast, in the eastern part of the Netherlands there was an extreme peak in water use.

The pandemic has demonstrated that water demands are very susceptible to changes in our society.

To measure the extent to which COVID-19 affected water consumption in terms of volume is extremely difficult due to the fact that water use can vary significantly each year depending on the availability of water. Nevertheless, a general increase of water consumption in domestic use has been observed.

In Singapore, domestic water use during the lockdown increased by 9.5%, while over the entire year it increased by 7.8%. In the weeks immediately after the lockdown, water use was still 5-6% higher, as many people continued to work from home and other social distancing measures, such as partial closure of restaurants, were still in place.

A greater consumption of domestic water could be explained by the intensification of hygienic measures that led people to wash their hands and shower more frequently, as well as cleaning their homes more often, and also by an increase in leisure time and activities that involved water consumption, such as gardening, and the increased acquisition of swimming pools. Some of these behaviours have persisted during the post-pandemic period as flexible working arrangements are still part of many people’s lives.

Another aspect that could have had an influence on the volume of water consumption during the pandemic is related to efficiency. Usually public and commercial buildings are equipped with more water efficient appliances. For instance, urinals and toilets in these buildings are usually more efficient than toilets at home, and office lunches prepared in canteens can be more water efficient than lunches made at home.

The pandemic didn’t just alter water demand patterns, forcing water utilities to adapt, it also brought some financial constraints for them. It has been reported that the pandemic raised the expenditures of the utilities because of the need for disinfectants, protection masks, and other extraordinary measures. Some governments applied a regulation for non-payment of bills, increasing the pressure on water utilities. In Japan, 36% of utilities implemented tariff reduction, exemption and/or postponement of payment. In Romania, collection of invoices was reduced by 20% for the period of the first four weeks of the pandemic.

In conclusion, the pandemic has demonstrated that water demands are very susceptible to changes in our society. Moreover, water utilities have demonstrated their robustness in terms of their capability to adapt to functioning variations, guaranteeing an efficient service to society despite the obstacles brought about by the pandemic. •

Lledó Castellet is a researcher at the University of Valencia, Spain