Introduction

Despite the growing literature on the socio-economic and health impacts of Covid-19 in Africa, water insecurity and its implications for peacebuilding among the most vulnerable sections of the population have not been accorded due attention. This article bridges this gap in existing knowledge by providing critical insights from Uganda to examine the unequal burden of water insecurity during the Covid-19 pandemic in an urban context. Using household interviews (n = 225), key informant interviews (n = 16), stakeholder consultative virtual meetings (n = 8), and stakeholder dissemination workshops (n=4), I also explore the gender implications of water insecurity and the effects on the most vulnerable groups such as women, girls, and refugees.

The first case of Covid-19 was confirmed in Uganda on March 21, 2020.1N. Atukunda, Uganda confirms first coronavirus case. The Sunday Monitor [Internet], March 2, 2022. Available from: https://www.monitor.co.ug/News/National/Uganda-r egisters-first-Coronavirus-case/688334-5499930-13fqak2z/index.html. Since then, there have been 161,572 infection cases and 3,483 Covid-19 related deaths.2Ministry of Health (MoH), Covid-19 Emergency Response Team Report, Government of Uganda, 2020. To reduce the spread of the pandemic, Uganda, like other countries, put in place lockdown measures, including the closure of public spaces, social distancing, virtual work for all except emergency workers such as doctors and nurses, and a ban on public transport.3Paul Bukuluki, Hadijah Mwenyango, Simon Peter Katongole, Dina Sidhva, and George Palattiyil, 2020. The socio-economic and psychosocial impact of Covid-19 pandemic on urban refugees in Uganda. Social Sciences & Humanities Open2 (1), 2020, 100045; Ministry of Health (MoH), 2020. Covid-19 Emergency Response Team Report, Government of Uganda. The nexus between water and health has become more pronounced and critical during the Covid-19 pandemic in developing countries. Since the World Health Organization’s (WHO) declaration of Covid-19 as a global pandemic, awareness campaigns by health authorities have been launched with specific emphasis on the importance of Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH), especially regular hand washing as a preventive measure against the spread of the disease and also drinking water to boost immunity against it.4FAO. Understanding the Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on food security in Africa. Rome, 2020. Available from https://doi.org/10.4060/cb0720en Therefore, Covid-19 has reinforced the need for access to clean water for health, food, and nutrition security.

The global importance of reliable access to safe water as being essential to containing the spread of the virus is more challenging for sub-Saharan African countries that were already vulnerable to water, food, and inadequate health systems.5Resty Naiga, Implications of COVID-19 on food security and gender relations: perspectives from Uganda. Young African Researchers in Agriculture (YARA) Working Paper 24, 2021. Therefore, WASH and lockdown measures are enforced on the assumption that the population has reliable access to clean water within their households or a reasonable distance from their homes. This assumption is far from the reality for most African countries where national coverage and access to safe water is still below 65 percent. Worse still, over 78 percent of the population still accesses water from communally used and managed water infrastructure such as public tap stands, deep boreholes, shallow wells, and protected springs.6Naiga, Resty, Local Water Conflicts in Uganda: Options for Peacebuilding Policy and Practice. APN Briefing Note Number 27. Published in February 2020. See https://www.ssrc.org/publications/view/local-water-conflicts-in-uganda-options-for-peacebuilding-policy-and-practice/; Resty Naiga, Implications of COVID-19 on food security and gender relations: perspectives from Uganda. Young African Researchers in Agriculture (YARA) Working Paper 24, 2021. Hence, the pandemic has escalated the situation with implications for the well-being of communities. Also problematic is the unequal burden especially in developing countries where water provision is considered the responsibility of women and children largely, because of their socially ascribed roles within the household.7Resty Naiga, Marianne Penker, Karl Hogl, Women’s Crucial Role in Collective Operation and Maintenance of Drinking Water Infrastructure in Rural Uganda. Society & Natural Resources. 30 (4), 2017, 506-520: DOI: 10.1080/08941920.2016.1274460; M. J. Mpalanyi, C. Kabonesa, and A. Staines, Lived experiences of women as principal gatekeepers of water management in rural Uganda. In, Water is life, ed. S. Linnane, K. G. McGuigan, H. Fagan, and A. Rugumayo 31–42. Rugby, UK: Practical Action Publishing, 2015. Therefore, increased demand for water as a containment measure and reduced access to safe water during the pandemic not only expose the already vulnerable populations to Covid-19 related infection and death, but also reinforce gender inequalities.8Resty Naiga, Implications of COVID-19 on food security and gender relations: perspectives from Uganda. Young African Researchers in Agriculture (YARA) Working Paper 24, 2021.

Covid-19 and lockdown-related restrictions present a range of contextual challenges in Uganda due to highly constrained access to safe water and overdependence on limited and unreliable communal water sources located far from homes. The contextual challenge of communally used water sources has been worsened by the fact that Uganda hosts the third-largest refugee population in the world and the largest in Africa.9Hadijah Mwenyango, & George Palattiyil, Health needs and challenges of women and children in Uganda’s refugee settlements: Conceptualising a role for social work. International Social Work, 62 (6), 2019, 1535–1547. By September 2019, the country was hosting around 1.35 million refugees and asylum seekers.10UNHCR, Uganda country refugee response plan, UN Refugee Agency. Jan 2019-Dec 2020, https://reporting.unhcr.org/document/1907; H. Bohnet, & C. Schmitz-Pranghe, “Uganda: A role model for refugee integration?” 2/2019, https://www.ssoar.info/ssoar/handle/document/62871. Most of the refugee population (82 percent) are women and children.11World Bank, Informing the refugee policy response in Uganda: Results from the Uganda refugee and host communities 2018 household survey [Internet]. Informing the Refugee Policy Response in Uganda. Washington DC, 2019. Available from: www.worldbank.org. Therefore, Covid-19 has increased competition and contestation for water not only among the refugee population, but also between refugees and host communities.

With water systems being highly labor-intensive and time-consuming, restrictions on people’s mobility greatly compromise water security among vulnerable groups such as the urban poor and refugees with implications on household stability.12Paul Bukuluki, Hadijah Mwenyango, Siomon Peter Katongole, Dina Sidhva, and George Palattiyil, The socio-economic and psychosocial impact of Covid-19 pandemic on urban refugees in Uganda. Social Sciences & Humanities Open2 (1), 2020 100045; Meshack Achore, Elijah Bisung, Elias D. Kuusaana, Coping with water insecurity at the household level: A synthesis of qualitative evidence, International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health, Volume 230, 2020. This has resulted in water shortages and increases in water prices. Much of the literature on Covid-19 and its implications on communities has been diverse. While some scholars focus on the socio-economic effects of Covid-19 including food security,13Monica K. Kansiime, Justice A. Tambo, Idah Mugambi, Mary Bundi, Augustine Kara and Charles Owuor, COVID-19 implications on household income and food security in Kenya and Uganda: Findings from a rapid assessment. World Development 137, 2021 105199; Resty Naiga, Implications of COVID-19 on food security and gender relations: perspectives from Uganda. Young African Researchers in Agriculture (YARA) Working Paper 24, 2021; Paul Bukuluki, Hadijah Mwenyango, Simon Peter Katongole, Dina Sidhva, and George Palattiyil, The socio-economic and psychosocial impact of Covid-19 pandemic on urban refugees in Uganda, Social Sciences & Humanities Open2 (1), 2020, 100045. others have focused on its health impacts14David Bell, Kristian Schultz Hansen, Agnes N. Kiragga, Andrew Kambugu, John Kissa, Anthony K. Mbonye, Predicting the impact of COVID-19 and the potential impact of the public health response on disease burden in Uganda, Am J Trop Med Hyg. 2020; 103: 1191–1197. doi: 10.4269/ajtmh.20-0546.  and gender-based violence.15M. Nabukeera, “Prevention and response to gender-based violence (GBV) during novel Covid-19 lock-down in Uganda,” The Journal of Adult Protection, Vol. 23 No. 2, pp. 116-133, 2021, https://doi.org/10.1108/JAP-08-2020-0032 However, little research has been done on water insecurity during the Covid-19 pandemic among the urban poor and its implications for policy, practice, and peacebuilding in relation to water governance.

Implications of Covid -19 for water insecurity and induced conflicts

“Water is life.” This phrase is justified by the multiple uses of water that are often taken for granted such as drinking, cooking food, washing clothes, showering, and watering plants, crops, and animals. Given the centrality of water in combating the spread of the virus and bolstering public immunity through proper hygiene, Covid-19 restrictions such as lockdown, social distancing, and curfews between 7 p.m. to 6:30 a. m. have contributed towards anxiety and water-related conflicts. The situation has been made worse by the amount of time required to walk long distances to water sources previously done before 6:30 a.m. and after 7 p.m. 98 percent of the household respondents reported flouting the restrictions to access water against all odds. A female respondent observed that the government restrictions on movement conflict with government efforts to improve social services among most of the population in the country. Relatedly, a male respondent explained, “I appreciate that Covid-19 kills, but hunger and thirst are likely to kill our children before Covid-19. The anxiety and pressure to access water resulted in confrontation between community members and security agents with some community members being arrested and imprisoned for defying restrictions related to curfew time and failure to observe social distancing around water sources.

The closure of schools for a period of two years from March 2020 to January 2022 placed immense pressure on parents, especially women, as a result of increased childcare, household domestic work, and bills for water and food. Water demand more than doubled due to extended holidays and the multiple uses of water such as cooking and mixing herbal medicines to prevent Covid-19, washing, bathing, drinking, watering plants, and frequent hand washing as a measure recommended to contain the virus. The high demand for water resulted in domestic conflicts between family members. A female respondent explained that her children fight over water or protest whenever she requests them to use the water that could have been used for bathing or washing clothes. A female respondent expounded, “I quarrel with my children over water every day, the relationship with my children has really been adversely affected by water scarcity. I regard them as less understanding, and they consider me as a less caring mother who does not appreciate the dangers of using dirty water for bathing.”

Walking long distances to communal water sources such as public tap stands, boreholes, and protected springs has increased the risk of infection among the population and is also reportedly a risk factor for early pregnancy and marriages. One of the female community leaders noted: “Water is very important because when people don’t have food, they just drink water and sleep, but the main problem we face during the lockdown as a result of Covid-19 is increased pregnancy and early marriages due to young girls walking long distances to fetch water.” In support of this view, a male respondent lamented: “In the process of walking long distances for water, I lost both my daughter and the water container.” For a week now, I don’t know the whereabouts of my 15-year-old daughter who left home to fetch water for household use. I am sure a certain man took both – my daughter and the jerry can.” Another male respondent explained: “Previously men have been fetching the water using bicycles, but due to the closure of schools, parents mostly send their children to fetch water and boys have taken advantage of the situation.” Providing more context, another male respondent observed that “men who own means of transport such as bicycles would help a lot in improving the household water security during lockdown. But due to cultural norms, men are worried about being stigmatized for taking on women’s roles and hence being considered ‘less’ men by society.”

Domestic violence related to water provision was reported by 67 percent of the respondents. Long queues delay women who fetch water more than men at water sources. And usually, some men are suspicious that their wives were not at the water sources but engaging in extramarital affairs with other men. The inability of men to care for their families due to economic hardships posed by the lockdown has fueled suspicions of extramarital relations. Relatedly, the inability of many women to provide enough clean bathing water to their husbands due to competing water demands and lack of time to fetch enough water has escalated domestic violence and marital breakdowns.

Water scarcity has also increased the risk of spreading the pandemic due to overcrowding on water sources and failure to observe social distancing due to the scramble for water at communal water sources. A local leader reported that more than 200 residents scramble for water at two water sources. Those who fear the crowds and long queues are forced to use unsafe water sources such as open ponds and rivers, thus increasing the risk of water-borne diseases. Moreover, due to disparities in water access in Uganda, urban people living in poverty pay as much as 22 percent of their income on water from water vendors. Spending such a high percentage of their meager earnings on water reduces overall household income and limits opportunities to break the cycle of poverty. As a result of over expenditure on water, 66 percent of the households reported having one meal a day—mostly lunch.16Resty Naiga, Implications of COVID-19 on food security and gender relations: perspectives from Uganda. Young African Researchers in Agriculture (YARA) Working Paper 24, 2021.

Water insecurity during the Covid-19 pandemic poses great risks for urban refugees. The pandemic has intensified water-related conflicts, discrimination, stigma, poverty, unemployment, and gender-based violence among refugees.17UNHCR, Urban refugees struggling to survive as economic impact of COVID19 worsens in East, Horn and Great Lakes of Africa. Available from: https://www.unhcr.org/news/briefing/2020/5/5eccbfec4/urban-refugees-struggling-survive-economic-impact-covid19-worsens-east.html. Many urban refugees live in urban slums of Uganda’s capital city, mostly in crowded living conditions without access to water and sanitation facilities that are recommended to reduce transmission and exposure to Covid-19. The situation is exacerbated by congested and inadequate water and sanitation facilities that are communally used by both refugees and host communities. With restrictions imposed on movement during the lockdown, refugees have resorted to contaminated water sources such as wetland springs. This situation has become detrimental to the efforts to reduce the spread of Covid-19 given the centrality of water and sanitation to disease prevention. In some circles, Covid-19 is perceived as a “foreign” disease mostly spread by foreigners and travelers. Since urban refugees are in some regards foreigners and migrants, they have faced varying levels of stigmatization, discrimination, and social isolation.

However, different mechanisms have been used to cope with water insecurity during the Covid-19 lockdown. Over 75 percent of households reported coping by resorting to other measures, including illegal water connections, water reuse (such as using water that has been used for washing clothes for bathing and cleaning the house), bathing once or twice a week, and social capital (such as borrowing from networks and extended family members). However, social capital as a coping strategy is challenging for refugees because displacement weakens their social networks, especially immediate and extended family ties.

Conclusion

Covid-19 has underscored the importance of water in sustaining life and socio-economic wellbeing. It has also increased the importance of water infrastructure operational reliability due to the cost of economic and social disruption. These operational needs derive from shifts in demand patterns, supply disruptions, and the various emergency measures employed by governments to cope with the pandemic. Covid-19 has therefore reinforced the importance of access to safe and reliable water supply given the detrimental effects of water insecurity on efforts towards curbing the spread of the pandemic. Also of note are the devastating effects of water insecurity on the peace and the wellbeing of the already vulnerable sections of the population such as women, girls, and refugees. The research findings also indicate that, in the face of water insecurity, urban households employ negative and positive coping strategies to meet their immediate water needs. Without systematic efforts to improve service delivery of basic resources such as water, Covid-19 restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the pandemic can only serve to disadvantage the most vulnerable sections of the population and reinforce existing inequalities.

To avert water-related conflicts, state actors and policymakers should consider addressing contemporary sources of local water conflicts such as water scarcity, distance to water sources, and the reliability of the water sources. They should equally address issues such as female participation in water-related decision making, perceived inequality and discrimination, and competition among the different users of water such as families and farmers and take steps towards easing water-related ethnic tensions between dominant groups and minorities such as refugees. These elements of good water governance are particularly important because conflicts often arise when people are deprived of basic human needs. Policies should target preventing violence as people demand improved services or compete for access to clean water. Therefore, the government and policymakers should seek to re-prioritize water governance, especially after decades of under-investment and mismanagement due to the lack of prioritization of the water sector and other basic services such as health in developing countries.

Acknowledgement

This research was made possible through the financial support of the International Foundation for Science (IFS).

 

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