“Wash your hands with soap and water for twenty seconds and several times a day”
“Use soap and water to save your life”
Those are the first measures they recommend worldwide to fight the coronavirus (COVID-19). Water has become a prominent issue again in pandemic times. However, who in Peru has access to drinking water for 24 hours a day, either in cities or in rural areas? A family from the limeño districts of Carabayllo or Surco? Peasant families from Apurímac or Puno regions? Having access to drinking water is a right that is not shared by all Peruvian families.
The gaps in access to safe water and sanitation in urban areas are still high. Even more in rural areas of the country. People without access to drinking water are the most vulnerable, as is revealed by this pandemic. Many families need to leave their homes daily to get or buy water with the few economic resources available to them: “We want water, Mr President, to avoid [the virus] infecting us”, they said, weeping, in one of Lima’s townships, as recorded by the Punto Final TV programme.
We have always been told that water is the ‘source of life’, but it is also one of the scarcest resources and one to which many people lack access. It has been the source of socio-environmental conflicts in districts and sectors of the capital and in various regions of the country. These conflicts have been a defining feature of our political agenda in recent years.
This brings us back to the debate about whether water is a common good or an economic good? This is a question that took the country twenty years to resolve before concluding, with the enactment of the new Water Resources Act in March 2009, that it is an economic good, a key resource for the country’s productive activity.
Today, the COVID-19 pandemic puts the debate back on the table, and we need to rethink water as a common good.
The precarious infrastructure and institutionality of the Peruvian health system have been called into question by the present crisis. This partly due to problems of access to the water on which peoples’ health depends.
Where is water management located? Its technical nature and the various different interests involved make it less than transparent. The main authorities and officials at the National Water Authority (ANA), which comes under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation, are subject to repeated substitution, so there is little by way of institutional continuity.
Certainly, Sunass (the regulator) has been doing an interesting job and Sedapal (Lima’s water authority) has carried out and implemented new projects. But integrated water management, whose aim is to coordinate between the various sectors and ministries, is ineffectual due to the absence of a proper relationship between them. Such is the level of institutional fragility. It is only now that proper coordination, particularly with the Ministry of Health, takes on special importance in addressing the emergency caused by the coronavirus.
The participation of user organisations is of great importance in water management. However, the water and sanitation management boards, which are communal organisations, as well as those responsible for managing, operating and maintaining water and sanitation services in rural and peri-urban areas, are still organisationally weak.
What lessons can we learn, in the wake of International Water Day on 22 March, in these times of coronavirus?
It opens up a window of opportunity to draw public attention to the need for transparent water management in ways that provide water security and access to safe drinking water and sanitation for everyone in Peru. It offers a way to protect and guarantee the health of the entire population, on an understanding that access to drinking water is a human right, that water is a common good.