Photo: Inequity in water distribution, Lima, Peru - Guillermo Gutierrez - Shortlisted WIN photo competition 2020

Putting integrity and accountability at the heart of government response to COVID-19, especially in the water sector

COVID-19 and Water Integrity: 4 measures to move forward

Posted by the Water Integrity Network, WaterAid, IRC WASH, GWP, SIWI, IWMI, Water Witness International, End Water Poverty, Shahidi wa Maji, and PNE Benin, BAWIN, and Sanitation and Water for All, with contributions by Sareen Malik (Coordinator and Secretary to the Board, African Civil Society Network on Water and Sanitation), and Robert Gakubia (CEO, Water Services Regulatory Board, Kenya).


The COVID-19 crisis has significantly increased the vulnerability of the millions of people whose human rights to water and sanitation have not been realised

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the stark realities of people who still do not have access to reliable supplies of clean water, and do not have decent houses in which they can safely isolate themselves from infection. There are two messages about how to minimise the spread of the Coronavirus: keep your distance from other people, and wash your hands with soap and water frequently.

“Washing your hands is such a simple act, and yet such an essential step in halting infectious disease transmission and saving lives”

– Oliver Schmoll, Programme Manager for Water and Climate at the WHO European Centre for Environment and Health in Bonn, Germany.

And yet, globally, one in three people does not have access to safe drinking water and nearly half the population does not have access to decent sanitation, at least in part due to corruption and mismanagement in the sector.


Governments across the globe are stepping up measures to slow down infections

During this crisis, many individuals and organisations have stepped up to fill gaps in services and increase availability of clean water and soap for regular handwashing, to prevent further spread of the Coronavirus. While these innovative responses and solidarity are commendable, governments as duty bearers have primary responsibility for managing the crisis, including in facilitating access to water, sanitation and hygiene.

For example, governments in a number of countries have taken targeted measures to either suspend or pay water bills and/or block disconnections for poor families. And a number of countries are taking action to improve access to WASH for vulnerable communities in particular. Currently, billions of dollars are being invested in emergency packages in response to the COVID crisis, including in the water sector. In Kenya, interestingly, proceeds from anti-corruption programmes by the government have been dedicated to providing water and other essential services to vulnerable communities in this crisis.

But governments face formidable challenges in quickly implementing such measures for populations that have no piped water systems, poor hygienic conditions, and are often times not reached by formal service providers. Increasing access now – to help control the outbreak – and sustainably for the future after the pandemic has subsided, are both fundamental, and require international support, as well as due attention to good governance, integrity, accountability and transparency.


If this is how you get your water every day… How do you physically distance? Will you get enough for your family? Will you get enough to wash your hands?

Photo: Hossain Ismail, WIN photo competition entry 2011


Integrity matters, especially in a time of crisis

Integrity requires that state powers and resources are used ethically and honestly, in this case, for sustainable and equitable water and sanitation services. There are four pillars to integrity: transparency, accountability, participation, and anti-corruption activities. Around the world, corruption and lack of integrity have contributed to the failure to deliver services to those most vulnerable, reinforced existing inequalities in access to water and sanitation, diverted resources from where they are most needed, and reduced the quality, availability and sustainability of services.

Over recent decades, considerable work has been done to improve accountability, participation and transparency in the water and sanitation sector, and to reduce corruption. The challenge in this time of crisis is to defend and build on those advances. Past and present experiences shows that the threat is both severe and very real, not only in countries with weak government accountability systems: the US Government Accountability Office estimates that about USD 1 billion in emergency response funding was improperly used or fraudulently obtained after Hurricane Katrina. German authorities had to temporarily shut down emergency COVID-19 response grants for small businesses due to massive fraud risks. Others use emergencies to prey on the weak and vulnerable.


The approach taken can either exacerbate or reduce integrity risks

In order to provide services in the COVID-19 crisis, governments and state agencies, quite correctly, invoke regulations which are designed to enable speedy delivery in the face of an emergency. However, delivery under emergency conditions can, either unwittingly or deliberately, open the door for corruption, lack of integrity and reductions in accountability and transparency practices that may have been built up over years.

According to U4, “there has already been a wave of corruption-related incidents, decreasing transparency and accountability, as well as manipulative political propaganda from all over the world.” In Brazil, as just one example, media reports raised questions over government emergency procurement buying surgical masks at 12 times the market value from a company with ties to the president, despite other companies offering lower prices.

It is all too easy, in a time of crisis, for the elements of good governance to fall by the wayside, or, indeed, for the crisis to be used by those with particular vested interests to force through changes, not necessarily for the long-term good of the people.

This then raises the question as to what can be done to ensure sustainable delivery of water supply and sanitation to the most vulnerable in both rural and urban areas, based on the four pillars of transparency, accountability, participation and anti-corruption.

“The lesson for us duty bearers in the WASH sector is that we must create a new normal, characterised by ’outrage’ against continued inequities in WASH service provision that make public health messages not make sense, but also demand that actions be founded on integrity and accountability among other values.”

– Robert Gakubia, CEO, Water Services Regulatory Board, Kenya


Maintaining accountability, transparency, participation and social inclusion during the response

We have highlighted some actions for governments to ensure that accountability and integrity are at the least maintained, and at best improved, during and after this emergency, and that they form part of a programme of meeting the human rights to water and sanitation for all.


1 – Develop responses with affected communities:

Developing response mechanisms with affected communities is inclusive and recognises their agency. It brings a greater ability to address specific cultural, social and religious challenges and to effectively meet the needs of people with disabilities and other marginalised groups. Creative solutions can be found to doing this distantly and in languages that people understand.

The Asivikelane programme in South Africa provides a remarkable example of people in informal settlements monitoring delivery of water and sanitation services in their areas and thereby holding government accountable. The resulting information is provided to relevant organs of state to facilitate improvements. The tool holds potential not only for holding government accountable during the COVID crisis, but also going forward into the future.


Asivikelane Dashboard (South Africa) - example - inclusive WASH responses to covid19
Photo: Screenshot of the Asivikelane Dashboard (South Africa)


In Ethiopia, EthioTelecom has introduced a recorded message every time a phone call is made about COVID-19 prevention.

In South Sudan, the great majority of people has no easy access to internet, television or newspapers. Radio Miraya is available across over two-thirds of the country, and 80 per cent of those it reaches listen to it every day. Radio Miraya runs public service announcements (PSAs), including recently written songs by popular artists on the best practices to prevent any eventual outbreak from starting or spreading, such as handwashing and physical distancing.

Finally, inspired by, UNICEF East Asia & Pacific is persuading tech giants to create a handwashing emoji and help spread the importance of handwashing for years to come. Scientists Nasim Lotfinejad et al state that hand hygiene emojis may strengthen infection prevention and control in different aspects such as raising awareness with no language barrier.


2 – Maintain transparency standards in emergency public procurement:

Government agencies must publicly disclose information on emergency procurement including how much (unit and total price) money is spent, for what (goods and services are acquired) and whom (target population and need), how (procurement procedure used), and to whom it goes (contractor).

Emergency measures should include complaints mechanisms to report corruption, misuse and other malpractices. While complaints from the public can be very effective against misbehaviour in frontline service delivery, whistle-blowing from staff is key for detecting irregularities in administrative processes including procurement, payments and accounting. This why robust whistle-blower protection in public institutions is crucial. Since customer service centres may be locked due to the confinement situation, alternative channels should be offered for ensuring communication between utilities and users such as websites, social media channels, etc.


3 – Establish a national oversight task force to monitor integrity and accountability in the COVID-19 response:

Consisting of experts from anti-corruption and accountability bodies (including investigations, procurement, audit, civil society watch dogs) and sector institutions (health, water, economic affairs), such a body can oversee budgetary allocations, monitor red flags in their use and launch special investigations and real-time audits as needed, and report to the public on the same.

This task force should also

  • Follow up and monitor cash transfers from government to service providers
  • Follow up and monitor cash transfers from government to households (universal versus targeted support to vulnerable households, how they are targeted, specific conditions)
  • Follow-up and monitor how service providers invest extra resources (e.g., cash transfers from government, donors, etc.) in improving services

The task force should also have oversight of the significant financial investments being made by donors and development partners into improving access to water and hand washing facilities. The use of these funds should be tracked and a clear commitment made to delivering sustainable and affordable solutions.

After the acute emergency phase, response measures need to be subject to the public reporting, auditing and review standards and processes and other government operations. This includes making sure that audit institutions, other oversight bodies and sector institutions (including their internal audit and compliance functions) are adequately resourced to carry out additional audits, conduct reviews, and produce diligent reports.


4 – Take measures against emergence of new water cartels in emergency water supply:

Systems should be put in place to prevent new cartels developing, or existing cartels taking control of emergency water supply arrangements. Such systems might include GPS tracking and identification of tankers, complaint mechanisms, widespread distribution of information on tariffs/free availability of water, and rotation of tanker drivers. Where possible, government should work with informal water suppliers to enhance the service that they provide and to build greater transparency and accountability into their service provision.


Strong WASH systems are the first line of defence and the path to resilience to crises, pandemics and climate change included. Corruption and lack of integrity in the water and sanitation sector undermines these systems and the human rights to water and sanitation. We call on government around the world to ensure that the water sector becomes an island of integrity, during and after this crisis, starting today.


Further reading:

Five human rights principles that put people centre stage in water, sanitation and hygiene responses to COVID-19 (Wateraid)

Public Integrity for an Effective COVID-19 Response and Recovery (OECD)

The Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Sector and its response to Covid-19: Initiatives in Latin America and the Caribbean (SIWI)

COVID-19 and rural water crisis: putting pressure on Burkina Government (IRC WASH)

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