Second COVID-19 - Urban Thinkers Campus addresses the basic services gap

Second COVID-19 - Urban Thinkers Campus addresses the basic services gap

Nairobi, 6 May 2020 

Some 120 participants joined the second COVID-19 Urban Thinkers Campus session to discuss the gaps faced by the most vulnerable communities in accessing basic services such as water and sanitation and how it can ultimately impact everyone.

The webinar, organized by the World Urban Campaign and by Practical Action, hosted six water and sanitation experts and practitioners in a lively exchange and debate.

In 2020, about 621 million urban residents still do not have access to basic sanitation facilities worldwide. “This daunting gap is hampering the response to the pandemic” stated Graham Alabaster, UN-Habitat water and sanitation expert. Without water and sanitation, communities are extremely vulnerable, and all hand-washing measures are almost impossible to implement in informal settlements. Most residents do not have the facilities at home to wash their hands with soap and running water. Maintaining physical distancing is equally difficult as most water and sanitation facilities are communal. Water availability is also affected due to increased need for handwashing. Even when water is available, soap can be an expensive commodity for households.

The COVID-19 crisis has revealed the immense gaps faced by the most vulnerable communities in accessing basic services such as water and sanitation and how it can ultimately impact everyone. Without access to these basic services, people are at higher risk of becoming seriously ill if infected by COVID-19, and in turn can infect others.

The situation of utility workers was also highlighted by the panelists. While medical workers are playing a central role in addressing the pandemic, the millions of workers at the frontline of water and sanitation services play a crucial to face the spread of the virus. “Their contribution is not fully recognized” emphasized Rokeya Rafiq, Executive Director of Karmonjibi Nari, Bangladesh. Without legal recognition, these workers are challenged in their livelihood hence not able to ensure full continuity in the services. “This is a big concern in our contexts and should be addressed by our Governments in the future”, she added.

An important aspect of the response to the current pandemic is to promote and facilitate good hygiene practices by leading awareness campaigns about COVID-19 transmission said Lucy Stevens, Practical Action's Senior Policy and Practice Advisor in the areas of Energy, WASH and Urban Services. It is about setting up handwashing stations in high-risk locations and attend to the most vulnerable groups. Practical Action has been particularly active in Bangladesh, India and Kenya. Mr. Birupakshya Dixit, Coordinator at Practical Action India, emphasized the need to conduct water and sanitation assessments and ensure regular monitoring with key players in communities. Many new challenges have arisen during the COVID-19 crisis around the use of community toilets and separation of wastes for instance with the new rules of social distancing. Social distancing rules mean that access to water and sanitation services is severely limited and people are unwilling to have social contacts in communal facilities, therefore make less use of adequate sanitation.

Mr. Dewan Kamal Ahmed, President of Municipal Association of Bangladesh and Mayor of Nilphamari Municipality, described the increasing issues faced in vulnerable settlements. The crisis has created several layers of complexity that are difficult to address with the current staffing and expertise. Peter Ogwell from the Kisumu County Government, explained that the crisis has become multi-dimensional since his municipality has to also address the impact of the on-going devastating floods affecting Western Kenya. Without the most basic requirements of water supply and sanitation infrastructures in many settlements, the situation is daunting. It requires extra capacity and the local government has to rely on the support of volunteers that are not trained to face the challenges. In many contexts, the access to facilities is likely to be further exacerbated by climate and monsoon seasons, like in Kenya at the moment, emphasized Alabaster.

As demonstrated during the Ebola crisis, the critical key to success in the response to a pandemic is effective partnerships between municipalities and organized communities in order to ensure functional water and sanitation utilities, maintain services and provide support such as free water in some cases. Also, in such crisis, municipalities generally lose revenue and the continuity of essential services is threatened. The support of central governments become essential to the survival of communities.

The COVID-19 crisis is revealing the huge inequities that exist in terms of access to basic services. Participants agreed that this should be used as an opportunity to reflect on the notion of basic services, and the minimum requirements for survival in times of pandemics to bridge the basic services gap. Longer-term investment will be needed to build back better in order to face future crisis.

A total of nine Urban Thinkers Campuses on COVID-19 will be held online in May to discuss current actions on the ground in different contexts, analyze good practices and solutions, extract lessons from the crisis and make recommendations for building resilience. For more information and to register go to

Article by Christine Auclair, UN-Habitat

Photo Credits: Bangladesh, Satkhira, BRAC, Rajarbagan community, ©UN-Habitat - Kirsten Milhahn