Impacts of COVID-19 on access to clean drinking water among water insecure households in Chiang Mai

The impacts of COVID-19 outbreak and control measures on access to clean water for drinking has not received much attention. However, it is expected that the outbreak has had both direct and indirect affects which, when compounded to existing issues carried over from pre-pandemic period, could further increase their water insecurity.

Boripat Lebel By Boripat Lebel - Jul 22, 2021
Impacts of COVID-19 on access to clean drinking water among water insecure households in Chiang Mai

A survey of approximately 300 households in 3 districts across Chiang Mai was carried out between January to April 2021. Participants included ethnic minority communities, construction camps, and informal settlements. 

The survey was part of a larger regional study in five countries funded by the Sustainable Mekong Research Network (SUMERNET), under the project “Listening to voices on the margins: lessons from the COVID-19 crisis for improving access to clean water for drinking and hygiene in the Mekong Region” (shortened to VOICES). This blog article focuses on the survey results relating to drinking water.

From the survey, main sources of water for drinking were delivered bottled water (57%) with some overlap from water dispensers (49%). Slightly less than half (43%) of respondents reported never boiling or filtering their drinking water.

When asked whether or not households had enough clean water to drink in the past year, coinciding with the first waves of COVID-19, a quarter (31%) responded that they were impacted. In fact, 35% observed that their supply of clean drinking water was less reliable than in previous, pre-pandemic years. And 17% reported they had to drink water that smelt, looked, or tasted bad compared to pre-pandemic period.

Meanwhile, half of all respondents (50%) acknowledged feeling uncomfortable or embarrassed at some point in the past year about giving drinking water to visitors. In a question asking about agreement with statements on the impacts of the outbreak, a large number of respondents (92%) admitted that COVID-19 “made me more scared of strangers”.

In regard to drinking water practices, compared to pre-pandemic period, 66% of respondents reported that because of COVID-19, they had less money to spend on drinking water. Almost a quarter (23%) observed that COVID-19 made it more expensive to buy drinking water. And, 17% noted that the outbreak disrupted delivery of drinking water to their households and community.

Almost half (48%) mentioned dry season drought conditions, on top of COVID-19, affected drinking water supplies.

The high reliance on obtaining drinking water from bottled and dispenser machines could account for the high reports of not boiling or filtering water before consumption, possibly due to trust placed in water companies to maintain quality as part of adhering to standards and health regulations.  

Generally, COVID-19 has had large economic impacts. Thus, likely explaining the relatively large number of respondent’s reporting having less money than pre-COVID-19 to spend on drinking water. The lower rate of reports of the disruption of delivery of drinking water could be due to the less strict mobility restrictions in Chiang Mai compared to larger cities like Bangkok.

Limitations of the study was that the survey was conducted between January to April 2021, and directed at previous 12 months, and thus did not capture the much larger COVID-19 outbreaks in the following months. The term “visitor” was not clearly defined and could include friends, neighbors, relations or even “strangers”. Subsequent studies should be more explicit when using such terms. The effects of drought or other situations that could affect water supplies were not explored in detail. Future studies could investigate the compounding effects of these factors in greater depth. 

COVID-19 had moderate impacts to access to clean water for drinking among water insecure households in Chiang Mai. Policies aimed at reducing cost of drinking water for vulnerable communities could improve their water insecurity during COVID-19, as well as be an opportunity to address such insecurities in the long-term, in the face of extreme drought conditions brought about by a changing climate. 

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