Washing your hands will help to save the planet

15 October, blog post for Global Handwashing Day.

The most enduring public health message of the last six months has been handwashing. Whilst debates and opinions continue about masks, social distancing, and other interventions, it is handwashing that has emerged as the undisputable first line of defence against COVID-19 and other pathogens. As we eagerly wait on a vaccine, the importance of good hand hygiene will always be the primary intervention to protect public health, and, if we do it right, also help to save the planet.

More sink time

When we return home from a trip to the shops, the first thing many of us will do now is wash our hands. The general advice is to wash hands more often, for 20 seconds each time, according to the WHO recommended technique.  The impact of this on a household might be minimal: slightly higher water and energy bills (most people will use warm water), but at a city level, the cumulative impacts become more significant: the fluctuation in demand, putting pressure on old infrastructure and increasing energy demand.

Across the world, as the pandemic spread and an increasing number of people worked from home, many cities saw varying trends of decreased demand from commercial customers (hotels, offices, shopping malls) and increased demand from residential customers. For residential demand, increases were in the region of 10% in San Francisco, 15% in Portsmouth, UK.

How is this increased demand broken down across the home? The major increases are in sink use and toilet use, according to a US-based study that looked at 2000 random households, increasing by 21% and 20% respectively. Whereas shower use and washing machine use are up 16% and 3% respectively. What these figures point towards is the impact of spending more time – professional and personal – at home. And as we emerge from the pandemic, it is likely that more people choose to continue working from home. This increased household demand may therefore outlive the pandemic.

Household water insecurity

Many of us take for granted the ease of access to handwashing facilities. Globally, an estimated 40% of households lack access to basic handwashing facilities (WHO / UNICEF). While proportionally, rural coverage is lower than urban, in Central and Southern Asia, 78% of urban populations have only basic access to handwashing facilities.

The pandemic has increased the level of risk associated with household water insecurity, where good quality water is not available or accessible to households. A recent paper published in Nature Sustainability advocated three key interventions for reducing household water insecurity:

  • Improving water infrastructure and technologies – including the development of technical solutions for the recycling and reuse of domestic wastewater and reuse of grey water sources
  • Promoting behavioural change with stakeholders, communities and local leadership – including the need to partner with corporates for future behavioural change approaches for promoting frequent handwashing
  • Providing water-independent sanitation alternatives – including the provision of non-water-based handwashing products

As the authors note, whilst these recommendations stem from the current COVID-19 pandemic, they remain relevant in the longer term as climate change impacts household water insecurity.

Reinventing our water future

In cities where good handwashing facilities are readily accessible, we need to consider the long-term impacts of increased demand. Take the UK as an example, the use of hot water in homes contributes roughly 5% of total UK GHG emissions. If we see increases of 10% in household water use, with perhaps half of that being warm water for handwashing, showers and washing machines, that’s about 1.5 million tonnes of GHG added per year, denting the average annual decreases of emissions the UK have recently experienced.

And in cities where access to good handwashing facilities is lacking, we have an opportunity to design-in water efficiency from the outset – both within the home and the broader urban water system. Closed loop systems that collect rainwater and enable household water recycling and reuse and where energy that is derived from renewable sources need to become affordable, in terms of investment and maintenance costs.  

In both scenarios, innovation pathways coupled with technology have the potential to dramatically reduce consumption and cost, whilst increasing the efficiency of today’s solutions.

50L Home Coalition – Time for change

Now is the time to deliver effective communications, solutions and partnerships that can influence policies and standards and nudge behaviour change towards responsible household water consumption. We can do more with less. We can meet our basic needs – hygiene, hydration, cleaning and cooking – in the home and not fell fear or burden. We can protect ourselves, save money and help the climate, all through reducing, removing, and reusing water in the home.

The 50L Home Coalition aims to drive this agenda: a multi-stakeholder platform convened by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the World Economic Forum and 2030 Water Resources group that aims to reinvent domestic urban water management via localized, collaborative partnerships connected through a global community. As we prepare to launch the Coalition on October 27, we invite cities, businesses, innovators and civil society groups to join with us and be part of the change.

Further reading: 50 L and the future of urban water use

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