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Monitoring Sewage could Prevent a Return of the Coronavirus: Birguy Lamizana

Pritam Kashyap
Pritam Kashyap

In the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Spain, researchers are poring over samples of wastewater for signs of the coronavirus, which is believed to be shed in human feces. Given that many people with the virus are asymptomatic and will not be tested for the disease, scientists say sewage could act like a COVID-19 early warning system. Monitoring water resources, including wastewater, have always been very important, says Birguy Lamizana, a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) wastewater expert. "This has become even more important in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic." 

But in many developing countries, a lack of funding, regulations and technical know-how makes the process a challenge, even in normal times. As states marshal resources to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, experts say wastewater monitoring has fallen completely by the wayside in many places, leaving them vulnerable to a return of the coronavirus.   

“During the COVID-19 health crisis it’s important to treat waste management, including medical, household and other hazardous waste, as an urgent and essential public service to minimize possible secondary impacts on health and the environment,” says Lamizana. 

The challenges with monitoring sewage are part of a larger waste management crisis in the developing world. According to a study by the World Resources Institute, globally, the number of urbanites who lack safely managed sanitation increased from 1.9 billion in 2000 to 2.3 billion in 2015, costing US$223 billion a year in medical care and lost productivity.  

With COVID-19 cases rising in many parts of the developing world, Lamizana says it’s important for states to take an integrated approach to waste management that focuses on recycling and reducing waste.  The government should also concentrate what’s known as wastewater segregation, which sees black water, grey water and water laden with toxic chemicals siphoned off into separate municipal streams. 

“An integrated waste management approach focusing on sustainable wastewater and solid waste management is essential,” says Lamizana. 

The COVID-19 is affecting 213 countries and territories around the world with 11,957,736 cases and 546,791 deaths worldwide. 

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