Safe water, sanitation, and hygiene (WaSH) is widely promoted, emphasised and encouraged by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as an important strategy to prevent the spread of COVID-19 infection. Despite WaSH being a universal right, not everyone has access to water and sanitation. There are variations of water accessibility between countries and within countries and Papua New Guinea (PNG) presents its own challenges.

Why access to WaSH services is vital

The increasing demand for water for handwashing and maintaining personal hygiene has been a major impact of COVID-19. According to the PNG household income and expenditure survey of 2011, fifty-four percent households, mainly in rural areas, do not have access to clean water and seventy-six percent lack sanitation. There is a large difference in access to water and sanitation between rural and urban households as well as within settlement and suburban housing areas. Access to clean water is essential for hand washing and mitigating the spread of COVID-19. It is hard for people to wash their hands frequently when there is limited or no clean water especially in many rural areas of PNG.

Densely populated areas with access to limited water such as settlements and prisons are at a higher risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19. Disabled people are also at a higher risk due to their vulnerabilities. Many in these places depend on shared water and toilet facilities and access is often limited.

Further, cleanliness must also be maintained at all times as COVID virus can be transmitted if toilets or the environment is not regularly cleaned and disinfected. It is critical to wash hands, clean furniture and surfaces with clean water, soap and cleaning agents. Many who rely heavily on informal sector for income may not be able to afford soap and cleaning agents, which puts them at risk of contracting COVID-19.

Existing approaches to WaSH

  • The PNG Government has already commenced intervention in various ways. Apart from allocating millions of kina into preparedness, the government is also involved in conducting major public awareness campaigns on precautions such as maintaining hand hygiene.

  • Development partners have implemented related programs at the community level. For example, WaterAid PNG provided COVID-19 awareness materials to the East Sepik Provincial Health Authority to carry out extensive awareness throughout the rural areas.
  • Private sector organisations and businesses are also involved in addressing the WaSH aspect of the pandemic. Shops have provided hand sanitizers and checking customers for body temperature.
  • At the provincial level, health authorities and provincial administrations are collaboratively working to address WaSH. For example, the National Capital District Governor, Hon. Powes Parkop is collaborating with the UNWomen and Eda Ranu for all communities in NCD to access clean water.

However, more needs to be done for the WaSH sector as we move into the new normal.

Strategies to improve WaSH

  • It is critical for WaSH professionals to re-strategise; collaborate and pull resources together.
  • Ensuring water and sanitation services are safely managed, apply good hygiene practices such as cleaning and disinfecting and promote WaSH in public and health care settings.
  • Ensure WaSH services are available in all educational establishments especially primary schools and for WaSH education to be a key component of children’s learning from an early age.
  • Government to include financial provisions for water suppliers to find effective ways to assist areas needing water most such as rural and urban settlements.
  • Health Department to consistently convey the message that every individual has the responsibility for maintaining basic health including hand washing.
  • Government should consider prioritising WaSH sector as this is a critical area to a safer and healthier population.

 

This article was first published in the Post-Courier’s 24 June 2020 edition and on its website’s commentaries and features page.