Diversity and inclusivity ‘lacking’ in the water sector

The lack of diversity and inclusion in the water sector, along with the latest research on Covid-19, features in updates presented to the Water Action Platform community in October’s webinar. The learnings are taken from information shared in WhatsApp groups accessed by over 1,100 people in utilities in 88 countries, alongside insight and analysis from technology consultancy Isle’s expert team. 

This peer-to-peer knowledge-sharing community is sponsored by leading water industry partners. Here are the latest learnings from the Water Action Platform, selected from the webinar broadcast on 8 October which was presented by Piers Clark, chairman of technology consultancy Isle.

Webinar 19: Top six learnings

1. Diversity and inclusivity ‘lacking’ in the water sector

Earlier this month Northumbrian Water hosted a diversity and inclusion seminar as part of its recent innovation festival. It explored a broad range of issues including gender, race, religion, sexuality and disability, and asked ‘how’ and ‘why’ the industry needs to do better.

Around 40 water organisations from around the world got involved and it became apparent just how ‘lacking’ the water sector is at diversity and inclusion. 

For example, in the water sector, Black and minority ethnic (BAME) workers represent 5% across energy and utilities compared with 15% across other sectors. In addition, female workers represent 20% across energy and utilities, compared with 47% across other sectors.

The event resulted in a comprehensive report being produced which presented the ‘good, the bad and the ugly’ of the current state of the water industry. It also includes examples of best practise, and most importantly actions that companies must take to ensure meaningful change. 

 As a result the Water Action Platform is launching the Diversity & Inclusion Knowledge Hub. If you want to take part, please email Megan at wateractionplatform@isleutilities.com

2. Covid-19: Wastewater is an effective early detection tool 

Wastewater-based epidemiology can help in the global fight against Covid-19 in particular, by providing an early warning detection system. Researchers from Yale University and the Connecticut Agricultural Experimental Station tracked the rise and fall of all the cases over a 10-week study. 

They concluded that when compared to conventional communal outbreak detection methods over the same period, the presence of SARS-CoV-2 RNA concentrations in primary sludge was up to two days ahead of positive clinical tests, 1-4 days ahead of local hospitalisation and 6-8 days ahead of official reporting.

This data shows, again, how viral RNA monitoring in municipal wastewater could be a useful infection surveillance tool, particularly in communities facing a delay between specimen collection and the reporting of test results. 

3. Specialist support during a crisis 

Following the Beirut explosion in August, the Water Action Platform set up the Crisis Response Register (CRR) for water industry professionals who are open to being approached in times of national or international crisis. The CRR continues to grow in popularity with over 200 volunteers from 31 countries. 

Recent success stories include Oxfam Australia, who reached out to 32 Pacific-based CRR volunteers to help during the Monsoon season. 

Another example of the range of work undertaken includes an ongoing water contamination issue in a Lebanese village. Local project coordinators are trying to identify the source(s) of contamination with limited technology at their disposal. Ultimately, they want to find a sustainable, long-term, fit-for-purpose solutions and are working with a number of CRR volunteers to achieve this.

A disaster-relief organisation which provides training and support during humanitarian crises is looking for more trained, qualified professionals to provide support on water and sanitation. RedR also has a roster of professionals to provide support during a crisis and has paid posts that last from three months to two years. 

4. How safe are water sector workers during the pandemic? 

A paper from the KWR institute in the Netherlands has looked at that recurring question of whether wastewater is infectious – and the answer is a clear no. For those in the sector these findings are reassuring.  

Broadly the safety advice has not changed from the start of lockdown. The adoption of standard good health and safety practises and standard personal protective equipment for water utility workers is both safe and effective.

5. Stability of utilities in developing countries under threat 

This month’s webinar featured an interview with Peter Macy, founder and president of ROCKBlue, which looked at the complex issues around the financial stability of utilities in the developing world, and the impact of the pandemic – which has sent many teetering on the edge of a complete financial crisis. ROCKBlue helps utilities in Africa secure much needed finance and respond to challenges in order to minimises water disruption, strengthen the relationships between communities, customers and utilities and enhance the long-term financial viability and durability of utilities.  

Macy reported that in the early days of the pandemic many utilities were already seeing 30 to 40% drops in revenue, however the forecast is for up to 70% drops over the coming months. ROCKBlue is working with several utilities to help them predict future scenarios for better mitigation plans, carry out rigorous financial monitoring and coordinate between organisations, governments and the private sector.

He added it is just as important to address the long-term resilience and the need for increased training and backup staff; more secure forms of payment, such as pre-paid meters; privatising parts of the operation and working with the regulators to increase rates. 

6. Ask for a mask

A paper in the New England journal of medicine has suggested wearing a face mask may inadvertently give people immunity from Covid-19, by both decreasing the chance of catching it and decreasing suffering if you do. The recommendation to wear masks in public was originally made so that asymptomatic people or pre-symptomatic carriers would not infect others. 

However, evidence is accumulating which shows a mask wearer is exposed to a lowered initial viral load – enough to trigger an immune response and train the immune system, but not enough to make you seriously ill. This is called variolation and was a vaccination process up until the late 1700s.