Washing Away COVID-19: Rethinking Global Water Security from a Soldier’s Perspective


  • The coronavirus pandemic is shining a spotlight on the fragility of underfundend, aging and overburdened water infrastructure
  • Improving the quantity of water available is often more important for health outcomes than improving its quality
  • The Army’s Graywater Treatment and Reuse System offers an instructive example for how we can tackle the issue of water access across the developing world in the era of coronavirus

In the midst of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, we are constantly reminded of the importance of water to protect ourselves and others by washing our hands. In fact, at the top of the United States Center for Disease Control’s  COVID-19 website instructs that everyone should wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds after being in a public place. However, as Peter Gleick, a well-known advocate of the human right to water, recently penned, the coronavirus pandemic is also “shining a spotlight” on the fragility of our water system.

The United States’ aging and overburdened water infrastructure is chronically underfunded, estimated at a gap of $84 billion in 2020 that will grow to $143 billion by 2040. Even so, most Americans enjoy water security delivered by a world class water management system. If this is not true of many parts of America, such as Flint, Michigan –  where underinvestment and poor management poisoned thousands of children with high levels of lead in 2014 – the growing divide between access to water in America is magnified tenfold on the world stage.

The World Health Organization (WHO) cites that research indicates 20 liters per capita per day (lpcd) is the minimum quantity of safe water required to realise essential levels for health and hygiene. Gleick in 1998 argued that 20 litres per day should be the standard for the basic human right to water. The United Nations (UN) declared safe and clean drinking water and sanitation a human right in 2010 (listed as Sustainable Development Goal #6) raising the bar to 50 litres per day. Yet, the UN estimated in 2017 that 785 million people  around the world still remain without basic drinking water services. Moreover, the UN found that 2 out of 5 people worldwide do not have a basic hand-washing facility with soap and water at home.

These are sobering statistics during the coronavirus pandemic when we are being instructed to protect ourselves by washing our hands for at least 20 seconds after being in public. The pandemic is thus reminding us what the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) community has emphasized for many years: increasing access to and use of water for personal, food and domestic hygiene is just as important for water security as eradicating traditional waterborne diseases. Now, however, the stakes are higher as the coronavirus intensifies the impacts of water insecurity, with serious implications for long term development.  In this crucial juncture of our global response, I postulate that the United States Army offers a unique lens.

While the US military may seem to be a strange organization to reference in relation to water policy, I have come to appreciate its role as a recent graduate both from Oxford’s Water Science, Policy and Management Masters program and the Army Engineer School. Through my training on the Army’s environmental policy, I realized the importance of WASH for the Army abroad as well as at home. Whether supporting operations in the Middle East or conducting field training exercises in remote locations in the United States, the Army relies on water to maintain soldiers’ hygiene and, in turn, their readiness for combat. As Engineers, it is our responsibility to calculate how much water is required to sustain soldiers in different climates around the world. However, not all of this water has to be potable, demonstrating the simple point that improving the quantity of water available is often more important for health outcomes than improving its quality.

This must be true because of the numerous basic human needs from water beyond drinking, which was first proved in the seminal Drawers of Water study in 1972. I had the privilege to study under Dr. David Bradley at Oxford, one of the key authors on that study, who coined the “Bradley Classification, ”which has served to “predict the effects of changes in water supply on infective diseases” (see  White et al., 1972). The Bradley Classification originally proffered four broad classes of water-related disease: water-borne, water-washed, water based and those with a water-related insect vector. Of particular relevance today with the coronavirus pandemic is the “water-washed” category, comprising infections ‘whose incidence or severity can be reduced by augmenting the availability of water without improving its quality.’ Since the water-washed category is primarily concerned with water access, it is of inherent interest to soldiers since both training and deployments occur in austere environments where access is severely limited.

As a young Lieutenant during my Basic Officer Leadership Course this winter, I had the opportunity to visit the Army Corps of Engineers Research and Development Center, where they are working on gray water recycling systems for tactical environments. In particular, we received  hands-on instruction with an Army Gray Water Treatment and Reuse System (G-WTRS) prototype that treats up to 30,000 gallons per day (gpd) of gray water generated from field showers and laundry in a containerized system. The studies conducted with soldiers at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri demonstrated no additional health risk compared to using potable water, proving its potential as a critical tool to increase water access in austere environments to prevent water washed diseases.

Although designed for soldiers, the Army’s G-WTRS offers an instructive example for how we can tackle the issue of water access across the developing world in the era of coronavirus. By focusing on recycling gray water instead of the ultimate goal of clean water, we can expand water security in the short term as we work in the long term towards the UN goal of providing a human right to water.  The US Army Corps of Engineers is uniquely positioned to help fill this global gap, and should be looked towards as not just a domestic tool in building temporary hospitals, but also one for international development. Water will remain an important aspect of the fight against COVID-19 in the foreseeable future and Army Engineers will continue to live our motto: essayons, “let us try!”

Sam graduated from Princeton in 2018 with a degree in Public Policy with a focus in Environmental Studies. He is currently serving as an Officer in the US Army Engineer Regiment after completing a fellowship sponsored by the Rotary Club and the Army to study at Oxford. He is also an avid fly fisherman.

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