One in 10 European schools lack basic hand-washing facilities - adding to Covid-19 risks as schools reopen

Schools could spawn COVID-19 outbreaks as children can also transmit the coronavirus. Source: Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education.

One in ten European schools lack basic hand-washing facilities. In past decades, Europe has achieved one of the world's highest water and sanitation coverages, but it is often forgotten that one in ten schools in the 53 countries of WHO’s European region still lack basic hand washing facilities, leaving some 5 million pupils without access to soap and clean water.

All in all, some 31 million Europeans still lack access to basic sanitation, even in the form of a latrine, and 16 million lack access to basic drinking-water services that also enable hygiene - mostly in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Water hygiene is more important than ever in the Covid-19 era. As students begin filling up schools in attempts to return to the 'new normal', these worrying gaps in Europe have potential to spur more Covid-19 outbreaks and to fuel existing inequalities, warned Marta Vargha from Hungary’s National Institute for Environmental Health, at a recent webinar hosted by Geneva Environment Dialogues.

Martha Vargha from Hungary's National Institute for Environmental Health.

Older children can also spread COVID-19. Last Friday, Vargha’s warnings became even more relevant as a South Korean study of 65,000 people showed children between the ages of 10 and 19 can also spread the coronavirus, strengthening the case for improved water and sanitation coverage in all settings - including schools.

“[The] South Korea study means we can’t assume older kids won’t transmit”, said Director of Harvard’s Global Health Institute Ashish Jha, referring to recent findings by South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Opening schools will need us to focus on suppressing virus transmission”.

The most basic tool to ward off infections. Access to safe water for handwashing is the first line of defense to prevent infection against the new coronavirus and any other disease-causing organisms. Said Vargha:

“Under the current pandemic, to be really efficient in prevention, safe [water] should be accessible not only at home, but also wherever we go, including schools, healthcare facilities, in workplaces and public settings” like public transport facilities.

A growing thirst for data. Europe’s nations cannot expand access to safe water to protect against the new coronavirus without reliable data. Currently, basic stats on water, sanitation, hygiene and health (WASH) services remains “limited” in some European countries, especially in healthcare settings and households, said Vargha.

Source: Martha Vargha.

A unique framework for action - The Protocol on Water & Health

While the problem of water, sanitation and hygiene in schools and other public buildings remains serious, Europe is still better placed than most regions of the world to address it, as 27 European countries are signatories to the 2005 Protocol on Water and Health, though over 40 countries in the region regularly interact with it, some on an unofficial basis, said Natalyia Nikiforova, UNECE environmental affairs officer.

  • ‘First and only’ . The Protocol, which is co-administered by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and the WHO Regional Office for Europe, is the only international legal agreement of its kind that links oft-siloed sectors together - sustainable water management and prevention, control and reduction of water-related diseases, a WHO spokesperson told Geneva Solutions.

  • Setting national targets based on needs. The Protocol helps countries set national WASH targets based on their needs and contexts.

Soft but smart. In contrast to other legally binding agreements - like WHO’s International Health Regulations (IHRs) or its Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) - the Water Protocol does not force parties to comply, said co-Secretary for the Protocol on Water and Health Oliver Schmoll. Instead, it operates through a “non-confrontational” and “facilitative” framework. Explained Nikiforova:

“The consultation mechanism is not a very hard instrument.

“But it's a very smart instrument to work with countries in order to facilitate implementation in a non-confrontational way through a consultative process, and thereby ensuring implementation.“

Self assessments to propel change. Twelve European countries have undertaken assessments that addressed water access disparities and led to meaningful changes, said Vargha.

  • In the Republic of Moldova, the self-assessment brought safe drinking water to some 67,000 villagers in rural areas through new infrastructure initiatives.

  • France, Portugal, Hungary and Armenia, amended national legislation to fill gaps in WASH services: Hungary improved minimum standards for water safety; Portugal and France cheapened the cost of drinking water; and Armenia defined “marginalized groups” in their Water Code to ensure the most vulnerable are not left behind.

A sticking point - the Protocol is exclusive to Europe. At the moment, protocol membership is exclusive to the pan-European region. However, it is Africa, Asia and slabs of Central and Latin America, where WASH services are most needed. It “would make sense” for the Protocol to “open up” to other regions in need, said Nikiforova, although there is currently no road map for doing so. Before the Protocol can expand, 26 additional European member states would need to ratify the Protocol first, and “considerable political will” is going to be necessary, added panelists.

Sanitation facilities are mostly needed outside Europe. Source: Deep Knowledge Group.

2.4 billionpeople around the world still lack adequate sanitation facilities.