How water utilities are communicating on COVID-19

Businesses around the world are having to quickly adapt to the coronavirus pandemic as communities remain under lock-down, and everyday life is put on hold.

Regular and thorough hand washing has been a primary piece of guidance from governments around the world to stop the spreading of the coronavirus, COVID-19.

As a result, access to clean and safe drinking water has become more critical than ever.

And water utility staff operating treatment facilities – often the unsung heroes in society regardless of a crisis – continue as key workers to keep water flowing and wastewater taken away and treated.

Global institutions and professional water sector bodies have issued fact sheets and guidance documents to calm any concern over whether COVID-19 can be transferred via water and wastewater.

The message is that it doesn’t, the virus is susceptible to disinfection and water and wastewater treatment plants treat viruses and other pathogens.

With these messages coming from global or even national large organisations, it raises the question of how have water utilities at a regional and local level been communicating this to their customers during such an uncertain period?

At a time when people are panicking, and there is a continued sea of useful yet also mixed information, how are different utilities actively communicating the message that the product they produce continues to be safe and indeed more vital than ever before?

We decided to look at different examples of utility communication to see how they compare globally.

Reversing water cut-offs in the US
In the US, more than 100 utilities in over 30 states agreed that during the coronavirus crisis they would halt the practice of cutting off water to homes that fail to pay their water bills.

According to the Food and Water Watch, a total of 15 million people in the US can experience water shutoffs annually for failing to pay their bills.

Bloomberg quoted a spokesperson for DC Water, which delivers water to the District of Columbia, saying: “We are not going to touch anyone’s service during the public health crisis…We want everyone to have access to water for health and family needs.”

WSSC Water announced it would be suspending all water service shutoffs for those facing financial difficulties.

The water utility issued multiple video messages, with the most recent including a message from its general manager and CEO, Carla Reid, as well as David McDonough, police & homeland security director.

In an earlier video, Reid referenced the “people on the front lines” who are reliant upon utility water: hospitals, doctors’ offices and its many customers during the pandemic.

She said: “I want to assure you that our senior leadership team has been proactive in planning for this situation. I am committed in communicating with you and being transparent in what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”

McDonough outlined the organisation’s “COVID-19 Incident Command Structure”, showing the organisation reporting structure and “Executive continuity team” to cope with the current situation.

“I’ve worked on hurricanes, tornadoes and floods but none of us have ever experienced a situation quite like this,” he said.

In a separate statement, WSSC Water said that all in-home, non-emergency work, including plumbing inspections and meter readings, are cancelled and/or postponed for one week.

Be accurate, be timely
“In a public health crisis, it is important to position utility leadership as the face of the response to the media and customers,” said Travis Loop, director of communications and outreach for the Water Environment Federation (WEF).

Speaking to Aquatech Online, he said: “Utilities need to see that the highest authority is at the helm. The first message from a utility should be an expression of empathy for customers and stressing that health and safety are its top priorities.

“It is important to indicate that it is following the latest guidance from the global, federal, state, and local health authorities. Provide transparency and say clearly what you know and what you don’t know. Be accurate. Be timely.”

He referenced large utilities including DC Water, LA Sanitation and Environment and New York City Department of Environmental Protection for running comprehensive, by-the-book efforts on how to communicate during a crisis.

Loop added: “It is impressive to watch how water utilities across the United States are communicating to customers about coronavirus in such a rapid and informative manner. It shows that the water workforce, including communications personnel, are experienced public health professionals on the frontlines every single day and are exactly the experts our communities rely on during a time like this.”

Planning resilience for potential absenteeism
A member survey conducted by the American Water World Association (AWWA) asked multiple utilities which anticipated business operation challenges they foresee as a result of COVID-19.

The top results included “Absenteeism/continuity of operations” and “Impacts on field operations (meter reading, repairs).

In a similar vein, Loop posted a survey on social media site Twitter asking: When there is a public health crisis it is important for a #water #utility to be: Empathetic, Accurate, Transparent or Timely. The top answer, with nearly 40% of votes, was transparency.

The Western Municipal Water District in California created a coronavirus update alert centre on its homepage, allowing customers to sign up for email and text message alerts, as well as a reassuring video message from its general manager.

Craig Miller, the general manager of the Western Municipal Water District, said: “Your water is safe, and it’s plentiful: toilets will continue to flush. Let’s talk about water quality: the same treatment techniques that we’ve been using for decades, treat for viruses on a constant basis.”

Meanwhile, answering the question of ‘Is the COVID-19 coronavirus in our water?’, The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) in the US published a Q&A referenced on its website.

“The COVID-19 virus has not been detected in drinking water,” the utility stated. “Conventional water treatment methods that use filtration and disinfection, such as those in most municipal drinking water systems, should remove or inactivate the virus that causes COVID-19.”

Addressing a critical situation in Italy; lessons from Hong Kong
Aquatech media partner Global Water Intelligence (GWI) produced a webinar featuring multiple water utility leaders on how water utilities are implementing business continuity during COVID-19.

Franco Fogacci, head of water at service provider Gruppo Hera in Italy, one of Europe’s most severely affected countries from the pandemic, said: “The situation in Italy connected to the coronavirus epidemic is becoming more and more critical day by day…the main concern is about possible quarantines of entire groups of workers dedicated to essential services such as those involved in the remote-control management of networks and plants.”

He added: “The conditions we are facing overcome the scenarios on which we based our previous emergency plans.”

Meanwhile in Hong Kong, Cahu Sai-Wai, deputy director of water supplies at the Hong Kong Water Supplies Department (WSD), told GWI that the organisation “built up some experience” from SARS (Severe Cute Respiratory Syndrome) in 2003.

He said: “We prepared a contingency plan to deal with SARS afterwards. Luckily it hasn’t been used again since, but now comes the COVID-19 that is similar…we also have a contingency plan from the government, that is a good reference.”

WSD serves more than seven million people with drinking water.

The deputy director of water supplies said that “we are well prepared, in that sense, to react, to respond to this sort of incident”.

Dusting off pandemic contingency plans in the UK
Across the Atlantic, multiple water utilities in the UK addressed the situation, including “dusting off” pandemic contingency plans to ensure lifeline services continue without interruption.

United Utilities spoke to Utility Week magazine about enacting what it called a “well-rehearsed” pandemic response plan for the first time.

Another angle picked up by the title included an inevitable spike in water demand due to increased handwashing and more people working from home.

With the government recommending two minutes for hand washing, this could use as much as two litres of water at a time, the site reported, following an interview with Waterwise managing director, Nicci Russell.

Meanwhile, SES issued a message of reassurance from its chief executive officer, Ian Cain.

The statement said: “Our main focus has been to plan for staff shortages, taking pre-emptive measures across the business to protect our people and their environments, to enable remote working and to stop all non-essential activities.”

National strategy in Australia
Over in Australia there is a lot of activity happening at a national, state and utility level, according to Adam Lovell, executive director of the Water Services Association of Australia (WSAA).

He told Aquatech Online that a national strategy is being developed similar to efforts by Water UK to help with customers with financial difficulties due to the pandemic.

“The association is also working with the Federal Government on chemical and other essential supplies as well as looking to “help smaller regional members if absenteeism becomes an issue”.

Also similarly to the recent warning by UK utility Thames Water about unflushables potentially blocking sewers, Lovell said that “wet wipes have become a huge issue again, although we hope that might settle down as toilet paper becomes more ‘normal’ in the shops again”.

Meanwhile, on its COVID-19 response page, utility Water Corporation referenced an AUS$607 million stimulus package for Western Australian Households in the wake of COVID-19, meaning there would be a freeze in increases to household fees and charges until at least 1 July 2021.

Another Australian utility, Coliban Water, took to Twitter to actively communicate during the crisis, like many other utilities.

Using the platform, the organisation’s CEO Damian Wells announced that he would donate 20% of his salary to a food donation programme.

Wells also announced on LinkedIn that Coliban Water would pay its outstanding invoices from suppliers of goods and services to help “support the local economy”.

In update to the post, the managing director said this resulted in the utility paying AUS$1.36 million to suppliers.

“Hopefully this has helped the local and general economy a little bit – notwithstanding we are facing a huge health and economic challenge that has a long way to go,” he said.