Our communities and coronavirus

The International Water Association is an organisation with a global spread. We are a community – a community brought together around the common interest of water. We likely share much in other respects too, such as a concern about the prospects for climate change. In these unprecedented times, we are now also a community in which each of us is having to deal with a new concern – the Covid-19 pandemic – if not directly in our professional lives, then quite probably in our personal lives.

Within our community, we have those from the community of water supply and sanitation service providers. This is a group I know well, and it is a group for whom I have particular empathy, having had first-hand experience of helping manage service provision during the SARS outbreak of 2003. At that time, I was in charge of technology and technical assistance at Suez, so at the forefront of analysing drinking water quality risks and the risks for wastewater and solid waste plant personnel, as well as supporting local contingency planning for maintaining services.

These operators are among those responsible for society’s critical infrastructure. They provide an essential service, meeting basic needs. This work sits alongside the vital work of others, not least those providing food, healthcare, transport and energy.

Resilience and preparations for major incidents often tend to focus a great deal on physical infrastructure. The Covid-19 pandemic highlights the importance of the human dimension of the well-being of utility workforces. These are workers governments and society look to at such times. Utility managers have to care for their staff and deal with the task of ensuring adequate resourcing to keep services running. We value the commitment of staff at all levels within such operators for playing their part ensuring society continues to function.

The impact of the pandemic on working life means this is also a time when a greater number of customers are likely to face difficulty paying their bills. A byproduct of this is an extra burden on utility customer service functions and a need for an extra level of sensitivity, all at a time when the public is likely to be seeking extra reassurance around water safety.

Also within our community are those who work to progress the science around health-related water microbiology. We are fortunate to count some outstanding individuals and organisations among our members.

We already know much that is relevant to Covid-19. Fortunately, we can be reassured that the precautions we already take appear to suggest we do not face a major new risk as far as the role of water is concerned. This includes what we do in terms of safely managing water supply. It includes procedures for protecting the health of workers and of the public in how we treat and dispose of sewage. But we should not be complacent. I am sure members of our network will be at the forefront of efforts to fill any gaps in our understanding, and IWA will be working to help facilitate this, as well as supporting the service provider community.

These are just some of the communities within our community. My thoughts are with you all – from universities looking to sustain teaching, through to businesses needing to sustain activity and employ staff.

As a whole, we are a community of members. All around the world, we are facing similar uncertainties. I hope you can draw strength from knowing you are a valued part of our community.

Diane d’Arras, President, IWA