Social lockdown period may allow society time, space to create new pandemic-free normal

Water and wastewater infrastructure are considered “lifeline critical infrastructure” by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Therefore, it is fortunate that a technical brief from the World Health Organization provided reassurance that current mechanisms of filtration and disinfection are capable of inactivating COVID-19 and that current evidence indicates low risk to drinking water supplies. It was also noted that COVID-19 does not transmit through the sewage system, with or without treatment, based on the evidence to date. However, this important sector is facing some substantial challenges.

A primary concern is with potential loss of available operators of water and wastewater treatment plants because of illness and absenteeism. With almost 97% of public water systems and over 72% of wastewater treatment systems located in communities of 10,000 people or fewer, the lack of trained and knowledgeable treatment plant operators is especially dire in smaller rural communities.

While most U.S. communities still have access to clean water, the pandemic has brought global water scarcity issues into sharper focus.

Another major concern is related to supply chain, for example, impacting availability of disinfecting agents and other supplies that are essential for day-to-day operations of treatment plants. DHS is working with treatment plants to develop response plans to manage the risk around the supply chain concerns. DHS is also helping the water and wastewater sector think through possible cybervulnerabilities, given the supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) and digital control platforms that are integral in operating water and wastewater treatment plants.

It is no surprise then, that on March 27, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Andrew Wheeler, sent a letter to the governors of all 50 states, territories and Washington, D.C., urging that water and wastewater personnel be considered essential workers during shelter at home and similar orders. He noted, “Having fully operational drinking water and wastewater services is critical to containing COVID-19 and protecting Americans from other public health risks. Our nation’s water and wastewater employees are everyday heroes who are on the frontline of protecting human health and the environment every single day.”

Dr. Tara Kulkarni

This is especially relevant considering the number of messages and public service announcements, on multiple news and social media outlets related to handwashing as a way to protect against COVID-19 infections. While most U.S. communities still have access to clean water, the pandemic has brought global water scarcity issues into sharper focus. Worldwide, three in 10 people have no safe access to clean water, and more than 2 billion people lack access to sanitation services such as toilets. While the “new normal” created by COVID-19 has helped highlight inequities, especially economic ones, that have prevented equal access to everything ranging from food to internet access, the water insecurity statistics underscore the everyday normal for billions.

In a similar vein, the balance is shifting in our larger environment, with emissions dropping and air and water quality improving as the world has ground to a halt in many areas in many ways. With the transportation sector contributing 23% of global carbon emissions and the industrial, manufacturing and construction sectors adding another 18%, the temporary pause in these areas is creating a dent in the emission levels — for now. However, it is harder to predict whether any of these effects will be long-lasting, or whether the levels will bounce back to pre-COVID-19 levels or even higher when operations resume in hyperdrive, as was seen after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks for example.

Navigating together

The broader engineering community is active and engaged in helping navigate this crisis. According to the Engineering News Record, most states with or without shelter-in-place orders were allowing construction projects to proceed as of March 25. There is a tacit understanding that it will take every profession and skill to combat this pandemic, its current presence, and its aftermath. For engineers, this spans from university engineering labs’ 3D printing of ventilators, to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ efforts in converting vacant buildings into hospitals to tend to COVID-19-infected patients, to the interdisciplinary teams engaged in vaccine development and maintaining a robust online infrastructure to handle the mass exodus to the virtual platforms.

The upcoming government stimulus will likely help several climb out of the holes created by COVID-19, but many will struggle for a long time and those of us that are able need to stand by, ready to help. In the meantime, living in rural Vermont, social distancing is easier to practice during walks or hikes and seems to provide the perfect opportunity for some introspection. What kind of infrastructure and engineering makes sense in a post-COVID-19 world? What lessons is this pandemic teaching us that may be invaluable going forward, in how we build our cities and communities, design our houses and neighborhoods, where we locate our food supplies and gas stations, how we create the systems of emergency response, on the kinds of communication systems that work well when we all have access to the internet, and how things fall apart when some of us don’t have access or the means to get access?

Needless to say, lots of hard questions and no easy answers. It will take a lot of imagination, drawing outside the lines, and thinking outside boxes to build infrastructure for everyone, secure against physical and cybervulnerabilities, mindful of resources, sustainable and resilient not just against climate impacts, but also unpredictable and deadly pandemic-causing viruses. Tall order? Perhaps, but with an unknown period of “lockdown” and time to think, it may very well be how we learn to create a new new normal in which pandemics have no place, because our environment, health and infrastructure coexist in ways that leave no room for the coronavirus or any of its doppelgängers.

Dr. Tara Kulkarni is an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Norwich University and director of the Center for Global Resilience and Security.

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