23 Jun 2020

Venue: Live | Webex Event & Facebook

Organization: Geneva Environment Network

Providing sufficient water and adequate sanitation and hygiene is key to protecting human health during infectious disease outbreaks, such as COVID-19. UNECE-WHO Regional Office for Europe Protocol on Water and Health is a legally binding agreement that brings together the environment and health dimensions and supports countries in setting intersectoral targets on water, sanitation, hygiene and health. The Protocol convening platform as well as a number of tools and guidance can be used during the COVID-19 recovery phase to prepare for and prevent possible future spread, while ensuring that vulnerable groups of population, including in schools, health care facilities and communities, are not left behind.

About the GENeva Environment Dialogues

The GENeva Environment Dialogues’ special COVID-19 series discusses the impacts of the pandemic on the global environmental agenda. Experts are concerned that the world is losing critical time to turn around alarming trends in biodiversity loss, climate change, sound management of chemicals and other environmental threats.

The series addresses the following topics:

  • The impact of the crisis on the invited organization activities
  • The response of the invited organization to the COVID-19 crisis
  • The impacts on the preparations of the conferences and negotiations they are hosting
  • New schedules and programmes for these conferences and negotiations


Facilitators: GEN Team

Nataliya Nikiforova

Protocol on Water and Health, UNECE

Marta Vargha

Water and Hygiene expert, Hungary

Awilo Ochieng Pernet

Division of International Affairs, Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office, Switzerland

Oliver Schmoll

Co-Secretary of the Protocol on Water and Health, WHO Regional Office for Europe



Diana Rizzolio, Coordinator, Geneva Environment Network

  • The COVID-19 pandemic is a health crisis that has affected everyone, and that has an important economic impact on top of the human suffering caused by the disease itself.
  • There is a large response from the UN system and from other actors to this crisis, including on the global environmental agenda, as we have heard in the sessions the Geneva Environment Network has convened.
  • The Secretary General of the United Nations refers to the COVID-19 pandemic as “an unprecedented wake-up call”. The pandemic is resulting in major economic and political shifts around the globe which are giving the international community a unique window of opportunity in which recovery plans can be instrumental in creating a more sustainable and resilient future. As we recover, we must build back better for people and for the planet.
  • The Secretary General keeps also reminding us that we have a framework for action – the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.
  • Today we have invited you to join us to discuss water and sanitation, which are key to protecting human health during outbreaks of diseases such as COVID-19. Indeed, one of the most effective ways to slow down transmission is to wash or sanitize hands.
  • Water and sanitation are recognized by the United Nations as human rights, reflecting the fundamental nature of these basics in every person’s life. However, globally three billion people do not have access to even basic hand washing facilities at home.
  • The need to re-focus on achieving Sustainable Development Goal 6, which is about ensuring availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all, is more urgent than ever.
  • During this pandemic the organizations working on WASH have been active in promoting the important role of safe water, sanitation, and hygienic conditions.
  • In Geneva water is discussed in various fora (human rights, humanitarian, health, meteorology, nature conservation, economy, etc.) and numerous organizations (UN, intergovernmental organizations, NGOs, academic) focus on water issues, making this region a strategic hub for global water governance. For example, UN Water, coordinating the efforts of UN entities and international organizations working on water and sanitation issues, is located here.
  • Today our guests will introduce us to the UNECE / WHO Regional Office for Europe Protocol on Water and Health and its response to the current crisis. We will also be discussing more in particular the gaps and progress in terms of hygiene and access to water and sanitation in the pan-European region.

Brief introduction of the Protocol and links to COVID-19 

Nataliya Nikiforova, Protocol on Water and Health, UNECE

  • The Protocol on Water and Health is a unique legally binding agreement, that brings together the environmental and health dimensions, with the aim of protecting human health and well-being through sustainable water management and by preventing and reducing water-related diseases
  • Inherently intersectoral nature of the Protocol – jointly serviced by UNECE and WHO Regional Office for Europe, with staff being funded mainly through voluntary contributions by Parties
  • The main obligation of the Protocol is to set national targets to ensure access to drinking water and sanitation – with a special focus on the equity of access to water and sanitation
  • 27 countries are Parties to the Protocol, and more than 40 countries regularly interact with the framework – accession is open only for pan-European countries, but the use of the tools of the Protocol is open to anyone

Parties and other States working under the Protocol on Water and Health

  • Very wide scope, encompassing the whole water and sanitation cycle: from protection of water at source, water supply and wastewater collection, treatment and reuse
  • Technical areas of work include:
    • Prevention and reduction of water-related diseases
    • Water, sanitation and hygiene in institutional settings (schools, Healthcare facilities (HCF))
    • Safe management of sanitation
    • Climate change resilience
    • Equity of access to water and sanitation
  • Policy areas of work:
    • Improving governance
    • Promote and assist implementation at national level
    • Compliance Committee of the Protocol
  • Links between COVID-19 and the Protocol
  • Importance of hand hygiene in preventing the spread of COVID-19
  • COVID-19 as an opportunity for countries to exchange on how to strengthen their water and sanitation systems to protect human health
  • The Protocol is legally binding and has an accountability framework, whereby the other Parties and the Secretariat establish direct contact with governments at national level to help set targets on water, sanitation and hygiene
  • Mandatory reporting mechanism – countries have to report at national and international level the progress in the implementation of the targets
  • The Protocol in the framework of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – opportunity to facilitate achievement of SDG6, SDG3 and others
  • Role of integration of COVID-19 prevention, recovery and future preparedness into the targets of the Protocol
  • The Protocol is a knowledge hub on water, sanitation, hygiene and health – rich array of guidance and tools in all the different technical areas

Gaps and progress in terms of hygiene and access to water and sanitation in the pan-European region

Marta Vargha, Expert, Water and Hygiene, Hungary

  • Water, sanitation and hygiene are prerequisites of human health
  • Access to safe water in sufficient quantity and adequate sanitation are the first line of defence against infectious diseases
  • Many global and regional commitments and instruments incorporate the goal of assuring universal and equitable access to water, sanitation and hygiene for all (e.g. HRWSD, SDG 6, Protocol on Water and Health, Ostrava/Parma declaration, EU DW)
  • Important that safe WASH is accessible wherever we go
  • Pandemic has impacted more severely the most vulnerable part of the population
  • The Protocol on Water and Health aims to ensure safe WASH for everyone. It is a strong instrument for providing policy and technical support to countries in the pan-European region to take action on improving equitable access to WASH in homes and institutions
  • In the pan-European region, access to WASH is high, yet there are gaps in data and in implementation in some countries
    • No data on basic hygiene at home
    • No data on Healthcare facilities (HCF), but ongoing assessment in several countries
    • Around 1 in 10 schools do not have basic hygiene access in the premises
    • High regional and social disparities in every country
    • Lack of harmonised monitoring
    • Need to intensify national action
  • In the pan-European region, 12 countries have undertaken a-self assessment to take stock of the situation and identify equity gaps in access to water and sanitation-looking at the following aspects (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bulgaria, France, Hungary, Moldova, North Macedonia, Portugal, Serbia, Spain, Ukraine)
  • Schools are one of the problem areas in terms of access to WASH – some countries report 100% of availability, but there is a significant lack of data and a lack of access in some countries
  • Tools developed under the Protocol to assist in raising awareness and improve situations
  • Healthcare facilities (HCF) – essential for prevention of healthcare associated infections
  • Very limited data on implementation of hygiene in HCF
  • Countries where basic services are lacking should continue to improve and assess the situation
  • Countries where basic services are already achieved should define advanced national targets
  • Key messages:
    • There are challenges related to WASH no matter the level of development of the country
    • Countries should address the needs of marginalized groups
    • Hand hygiene is critical and should be promoted
    • HCF are at the heart of outbreak prevention and access to hygiene should be available in HCF

The role of water, sanitation and hygiene and the call of the World Health Assembly Resolution 73.1 on COVID-19 response

Awilo Ochieng Pernet, International Affairs, Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office, Switzerland

  • Swiss legal framework for WASH:
    • Swiss Federal Constitution has provisions on water and consumer protection
    • Water management is implemented by the Cantons
    • Water is supplied by the communes, based on powers delegated from the Cantons
  • Switzerland has nearly universal coverage in terms of water supply
  • Switzerland is a Party to the Protocol since 2006, is a member of the Bureau of the Protocol and chairs the Task Force on Target Setting and Reporting
  • Swiss national targets are in line with Article 6 of the Protocol – ensure access to drinking water and the provision of sanitation
  • Importance of hand hygiene in the prevention of COVID-19 pandemic
  • COVID-19 outreach in various languages
  • Recommendations for a safe reopening – including prevention other water-related diseases
  • WHA 73.1 Resolution on COVID-19 response
    “7. CALLS ON Member States, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic:
    (4) to take measures to support access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene, and infection prevention and control, ensuring that adequate attention is paid to the promotion of personal hygienic measures in all settings, including humanitarian settings, and particularly in health facilities;”
  • While most people in the pan-European region have access to WASH, 16 million people lack that access
  • The Protocol is a powerful instrument to put into practice the WHA Resolution, offering an accountability framework and several guidance tools

Immediate response to COVID-19 and outlook for future work of the Protocol

Oliver Schmoll, Co-Secretary, Protocol on Water and Health, WHO – Regional Office for Europe

  • Immediate response to COVID-19
    • Hand-on assistance
      • Guidance documents on WASH and waste management
      • Assistance to country authorities
      • Webinar sessions
  • Need to assess the safety of:
    • Drinking water
      • Research on the survival of the virus in the water environment (Does it survive? For how long?)
      • Efficacy of water disinfection in eliminating the virus
    • Sanitation and wastewater management
      • Research on the survival of the virus in wastewater
      • Research on the safety of workers in contact with wastewater
    • Recreational use of water
    • Re-occupation of buildings
      • Avoid insurgence of water-related diseases or of chemical contamination
  • Need to promote:
    • Hand hygiene
      • Guidance on HH materials, practices and facilities
      • Universal access should be in place
      • Re-focus on HH
    • Safe practices in HCF
      • Hygiene practices by healthcare staff and patients
      • Waste management
      • Cleaning and disinfection
  • WHA 73.1 Resolution on COVID-19 response
  • COVID-19 considerations for the Protocol
    • Convene dialogues on the experiences with WASH
      • Share good practices and lessons learned
    • Scale up the “culture of hygiene”
      • Promote good practices in schools and HCF
    • Strengthen health system capabilities
      • Effective surveillance and response system
    • Monitoring of water supply systems
    • Analyze inequalities in access to essential WASH service
      • Access to disadvantaged groups
      • Affordability of services and materials
    • Strengthen COVID-19 target setting
    • Special Webinar series under the Protocol for information, networking and engagement will start on 8 July

Questions and Answers


Matteo Tarantino to Awilo

  • Could you kindly provide some more details about legionella prevention? In particular, the availability of knowledge regarding prevention. Also, could the similarity of symptoms between legionella and covid complicate the situation?

Mara Tignino, Geneva Water Hub

  • Could you give some examples of the activities of the Compliance Committee?

Svĕt Vijay from Health Policy Watch

  • The Protocol is legally binding, but what happens if Member States don’t adhere to it? How does this compare to IHRs, for instance – which were poorly adhered to globally – and the WHO could do nothing. Do you see the Protocol as a tool that’s similar to the FCTC? Why is the protocol only for Europe, given that most lack of access to water is outside Europe?

Lauri Liepkalns

  • What were the main challenges in making and updating the COVID guides on the Protocol?

Question from a different platform

  • Are there similar protocols in other regions of the world offering such tools?

David Cabanas Alves

  • The water quality directive is under review in the EU. There is talk of analyzing PFAS and Legionella at the consumer’s tap. The pandemic poses the need to search for viruses that are not mentioned in the directive. Doesn’t it make sense to include them in the list of parameters to search?

Diana Iskreva

  • Waiting for the series of webinars starting in a couple of weeks. Please, will you provide details on the agenda of the webinars and where one can get more info in advance?

Luis Simas

  • Concerning the raised awareness of hand hygiene that we all should be aware before COVID-19, do you have any ideas on how to gather better data and improve strategies for the different countries? (Answered by Oliver during the session)

Comments from Claire Kilpatrick from WHO HQ WASH and IPC

  • Thank you Marta, a very clear presentation joining up the WASH and health sector work. There are infection prevention assessment tools that give some insight into the WASH situation, it would be good to join these results together at some point.
  • Thank you Oliver. For HH in healthcare, we have worked for a number of years on the culture in health care settings, ways to promote this and examples from countries.


Nataliya Nikiforova

  • Protocol is legally binding for Parties, but other countries can also benefit from its tools and guidance
  • Participating in international instrument facilitates implementation at national level
  • Decision by Parties – first strengthen participation in pan-European region, then Protocol might open to other regions

Oliver Schmoll

  • Difference between Protocol – national targets, countries set their own targets based on needs and resources – as compared to IHR – base global framework
  • Consultation mechanism of the Protocol Compliance Committee is available to facilitate implementation of the targets set by the countries themselves

Awilo Ochieng Pernet

  • Legionella – increasing attention to this topic under the Protocol
  • Current programme of work 2020-2022 – area on prevention and reduction of water-related diseases, includes prevention of Legionella
  • Work is going forward, include the experience we gathered from the pandemic

Oliver Schmoll

  • The recast of the EU Drinking Water Directive will pay more attention than before to situational risk assessment from each supply system – evaluate risk of presence of viruses
  • Stronger focus on  addressing microbiological risks

Nataliya Nikiforova

  • Compliance Committee of the Protocol – a very open mechanism – any member of the public can address the Compliance Committee
  • The Committee is also providing advice and assistance in the framework of the consultation process.
  • The Committee also developed several interpretative notes on the Protocol provisions, including a recent study on the relationship between the Protocol and relevant EU law

Marta Vargha

  • The concept of the new EU Drinking Water Directive related to water shifted to risk-based monitoring – the emphasis is on proving that there is no chance that the virus moves through water
  • Viral detection in drinking water is extremely expensive and very complicated – money is better spent on assessing risks

Closing remarks

Nataliya Nikiforova

  • Encouragement to actively use the Protocol and its tools as a practical instrument that can be used at national level to translate international commitments into action at national level



The event was live on facebook.


The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and the World Health Organization (WHO) Europe provide the joint secretariat to the Protocol and coordinate activities for its implementation.


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