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ESCWA: 74 million in the Arab region at risk of COVID-19 due to lack of access to a handwashing facility

Beirut, Lebanon

Beirut, 15 April 2020--While it has been agreed worldwide that handwashing with soap and water is the best prevention against COVID-19 contagion, this simple act proves to be difficult in a region where 74 million people lack access to a basic handwashing facility. A new policy brief (attached) released today by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) highlights the impact of the pandemic on the water-scarce Arab region.
Water demand for handwashing alone is set to increase by 9 to 12 litres per person per day – not to mention laundry, cleaning and food washing demands. This amounts to an average daily increase of household water demand by 4 million to 5 million cubic metres. The situation is further exacerbated by insufficient piped water supply in 10 of the 22 Arab countries.
About 87 million people in the region also lack access to an improved drinking water source in their homes. This exposes them to a greater risk of contagion as they are forced to collect water daily from a public source. Women and girls in rural, peri-urban areas and informal settlements, who usually undertake the water collection task, are thus put at a greater risk.
“It is urgent to ensure access to clean water and sanitation services to everyone everywhere, at no cost for those who cannot afford it, in order to avoid further spread of the coronavirus,” affirmed ESCWA Executive Secretary Rola Dashti. Indeed, several Governments and utility operators have taken extraordinary measures to reconnect services and waive tariffs for an interim period to alleviate economic hardship: this should be emulated in all Arab countries.
Refugees and people living in conflict areas or under occupation bear an additional burden. In the Gaza Strip, one of the most densely populated areas in the world, only 1 in 10 households has access to clean water. An estimated 26 million refugees and internally displaced persons in the region are also at a greater risk of contracting COVID-19 due to lack of adequate water, sanitation and hygiene services.
“Access to water should not be used as a weapon of war,” further said Dashti, reiterating her call for an immediate humanitarian truce and a renewal of efforts to build lasting peace in the region. “Governments should prioritize and coordinate the provision of emergency clean water and handwashing facilities to all areas without coverage,” she concluded.
ESCWA also calls for increased quality assurance measures on water and wastewater treatment systems, as poor water quality raises contagion risks.

This policy brief is part of a series of impact assessments of COVID-19 undertaken by ESCWA to support Arab Governments in joining efforts to mitigate the effects of the pandemic.


One of five United Nations regional commissions, ESCWA supports inclusive and sustainable economic and social development in Arab States, and works on enhancing regional integration.

For more information:
- Ms. Maryam Sleiman, Public Information Assistant, +961-81-769-888; email:
- Ms. Rania Harb, Public Information Assistant, +961-70-008-879; email: