AWWA Articles

Managing COVID-19 in developing countries

As challenged as water utilities in North America have been by the COVID-19 pandemic, imagine the severe impact the virus is having in developing countries that lack sufficient water and sanitation services.

Child at water faucetThe following insights are provided by ROCKBlue, a nonprofit working to strengthen urban water, sanitation and hygiene systems in the developing world. To date, ROCKBlue has established partnerships with utilities in Mozambique, Lesotho, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe. (Photos courtesy of ROCKBlue)

Peter MacyPeter Macy (left), former vice president and regional manager in Africa for CDM Smith, co-founded ROCKBlue in 2013 with Richard Noth and Satish Menon. As seasoned experts in utility operations and international development, they are focusing their humanitarian efforts on finding a more effective and durable approach to addressing poor water and sanitation.

Their work also advances the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal Six (SDG6): Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. They do this by connecting with senior management at water utilities and providing virtual, free and forever advisory services through a network of more than 100 volunteer utility specialists.

Meeting with Richard Noth, Ed Aldrich and Peter MacyMacy, ROCKBlue’s CEO and president, and Noth, who serves on the nonprofit’s board, provided responses to the following questions. (Pictured from left, Macy; Ed Aldrich, ROCKBlue finance and accounting advisor; and Noth)

How are your utility partners being impacted by COVID-19? Many of the utilities we work with struggle under normal circumstances to cover operating expenses because they are paid for just a fraction of the water they provide their communities. Due to the pandemic, they are already seeing 30 percent revenue reductions and predictive models indicate future revenue losses of up to 70 percent. Their supply chains for chlorine and other necessities are being dramatically disrupted and staff availability and productivity are rapidly dropping.

How does this impact the communities they serve? Lack of water utility revenue, supplies, and staff invariably result in grave risks for the communities they serve, which often include densely populated, informal settlements (sometimes called slums) with many people living in tight quarters. To borrow actor Matt Damon’s words, “water is PPE,” (Personal Protective Equipment). When a utility can’t afford chemicals and doesn’t have enough staff and funds to operate, water and sanitation services suffer. Segments of these communities don’t have piped water or sanitation in homes and do not benefit from public hand-washing facilities, all critical to avoiding infections and sickness.

What is a specific need being addressed by ROCKBlue? Access to financing for operational and capital expenditures is indispensable for utilities, and that is especially critical now that their needs go beyond maintaining financial liquidity. The other need is approved Emergency Response and Business Continuity plans and associated financing to support those plans.

How else are you supporting water utilities through the pandemic? We expect COVID-19 to peak in our communities in August and September and we’re working full speed with our utility specialists to share the latest information through blog posts, webinars, workshops and our online lecture series. We’re also helping utilities mobilize external funding to mitigate the loss of revenue by providing finance-related guidance and tracking possible opportunities for rapid financing from commercial banks as well as development finance institutions such as the World Bank Group. We know this will be an intense challenge for months and the impacts will likely last for years, another reason our forever approach is so critical.

Hands at faucetWhat’s happening in South Africa, where your organization is based? South Africa declared a national disaster due to COVID-19 on March 15 and has been on informal lockdown since March 26. As of mid-June, South Africa recorded more than 50,000 cases of COVID-19, 1,080 deaths and 26,000 recoveries.

How is the water sector there responding? The 144 municipal water utilities (Water Service Authorities) in South Africa have been very active in getting emergency water and sanitation services to about 2,000 identified vulnerable communities. They are working with national and local governments, the private sector and other organizations to curb the virus and minimize contamination. Projects addressing basic infrastructure and economic development for the poor are being prioritized to maximize the fight against COVID-19.

How is the South African government assisting water utilities? Government interventions regarding water and sanitation include:

  • Ensuring water is supplied to communities without formal water service; this includes communal water storage and collection points
  • Providing hand-washing facilities in public places
  • Launching a health and hygiene campaign
  • Providing interim, containerized sanitation systems in highly-dense areas

Is there anything else you’d like to mention? Nearly one billion people across the globe do not have access to clean, safe water, resulting in 6,000 children dying each day. In urban populations of Africa, 750 million people are facing a potential humanitarian crisis associated with COVID-19 in both the short- and long-run. One of the most challenging places on the globe is Zimbabwe, where we work in four cities. Struggles associated with water never seem to vanish. More than 2,000 people died in that country’s last cholera outbreak, and now they are in the combined grip of a severe drought and global pandemic.

How can AWWA members support your efforts? Please consider contributing your technical expertise as one of our virtual volunteer utility specialists or providing examples of emergency plans, business continuity tools or other resources. We also welcome financial donations. For more information, go to our website or contact us at We thank AWWA for its contributions to ROCKBlue, including technical manuals to utilities in Zimbabwe. They consider these manuals a treasure trove.