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Here’s how water utilities around the world are responding to COVID-19

As countries across the globe work hard to contain the COVID-19 virus, water utilities are focusing on a key goal: ensuring the continued provision of services at a time when it is needed most. 

During an International Water Association (IWA) webinar recently, utility leaders from the UK, US, China, India and Italy shared some of the challenges they have faced during the pandemic. 

IWA President Diane D’Arras said this information sharing was incredibly important and would help strengthen utilities’ responses to similar events in future. 

“If we do our job well, and as usual, then everything is fine,” D’Arras said. 

“The difficulty is that we are not working under usual conditions. How do we as utilities manage the pandemic situation in a way that ensures delivery of essential services in complex situations?”

Leader of IWA’s COVID-19 Task Force, Professor Joan Rose said no matter where they are located, utilities face two key challenges: managing the risk to the community and managing the risk to workers.

She reiterated that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has not been found in treated effluent.

“The data, to date, has indicated that it is very difficult to cultivate from faeces,” she said. 

“The data suggests no risks to occupational workers. The normal precautions workers take to protect themselves from other pathogens have proven to be enough to protect them from the coronavirus.”

Protecting staff

In India, Chennai Metro Water Executive Director T. Prabhushankar said personal protective equipment (PPE) for field staff, as well as strict social distancing, was a crucial element of the utility’s approach, due to the nature of water delivery.

“Chennai is a very typical city, when it comes to India. We have been working to continue the delivery of water services to 8 million people,” he said.

“With 2309 field staff, it has been very important for us to protect them. We have water tankers supplying water in some areas, with people lining up to collect water. 

“Social distancing has been key, but we have been screening our staff too and ensuring [they have] protective gear.”

China’s Shanghai National Engineering Research Center of Urban Water Resources Manager Shuangyi Zhang said staff arrangements had been altered to safeguard the health of employees.

“Currently, the situation is a lot better compared to two or three months ago. Most of our daily lives are back to normal. But we do have a system organised in the event of outbreak,” Zhang said. 

“We have shuttle buses for our staff to commute to work. We also ensure we measure body temperatures before they can enter the facility. 

“Thankfully, we don’t yet have any staff who have been infected. Our operation staff working in the field need to wear protective suits, and our office staff need to wear masks, but otherwise everything is operating as normal.”

Staffing levels

In the UK, South South West Water CEO Christopher Loughlin said the request for PPE had come from the bottom up, with employees asking for masks and other protective gear despite the government saying this was unnecessary.

He also said it was crucial to move people to remote working as soon as possible, and to ensure social distancing measures were in place for facilities that require on-site staff. 

“We have something called ‘defined’ workers, essential workers, and many of [utility] workers are categorised this way,” he said.

“Our early work focused on the fact that the prime minister had warned us to prepare for 25% to 30% absenteeism. We were very concerned about losing the operation of some sites.”

To manage this, the utility split its teams into smaller groups. That way, if an individual became infected the whole team wouldn’t need to go into self-isolation.

“The absenteeism at the moment is 9%, nothing like the 25% we were preparing for,” Loughlin said. 

“That 9% has plateaued and is starting to come back down.”

Financial planning

Italy has been one of the nations hardest hit by the coronavirus, with  210,717 confirmed cases and 28,884 deaths.

Claudio Cosentino, President of Acea Ato 2, the utility that services Rome, said the focus had been on ensuring field workers had access to PPE, as well as devising a financial plan to ensure its suppliers and delivery partners were also able to continue working. 

“As you know, Italy has been impacted very badly,” Cosentino said during the webinar.

“The message we got from the government was that water utilities had to continue to provide services as usual. This is very important during this time.

“The company has devised an investment plan for the delegation of all our processes, both commercial and operational. Basically, we are ready to deliver our services with a very high level of remote staff.”

Customer support

In the US, DC Water’s CEO and General Manager David Gadis said the utility was well-prepared to deal with the pandemic thanks to its incident management team. 

He said the utility wanted to ensure all residents had access to water at such a crucial time – even those who couldn’t afford to pay. As a result, DC Water discontinued water cut-offs and reversed those that had already been done.

“There were two things we did here that were very important,” Gadis said. 

“We immediately released an emergency declaration for the utility. We also needed to make sure that anyone who comes into DC has water.

“We know one of the most important parts of fighting this disease is being able to wash your hands. We stopped cutting water off to households and restored water to households that had been disconnected.”

Going forward, workforce planning will continue to be important, Gadis said.

“If utilities haven’t done this yet, this is something that is incredibly important for managing this type of crisis,” he said.

“We took half our employees and transitioned them to working remotely immediately. We got everybody out of our facilities and allowed them to work from home.”