The impact of drought on water quality and sanitation
Where there is limited water supply, there is an increased likelihood that basic sanitation will not be prioritised. This could give rise to gastrointestinal illnesses, acute respiratory infections and dermatological infections (Photo: Pexels)

WATER is ubiquitous and is in all that we do. As such, it will likely impact various sectors of human life. This ranges from health, economy, social, and food security.

The effects of climate change, growing water scarcity, increase in population, and present urbanisation challenges for water supply to meet required and desired needs.

Owing to the ubiquitous nature of water and its various demands, surface and groundwater are susceptible to deliberate or unintentional degradation of the quality and quantity of water due mainly to chemical, physical and biological contaminants. This degradation will result in water being unsafe for human consumption, impacting the quality and quantity of water available for daily living.

Drinking water contaminated by microorganisms can transmit diseases such as diarrhoea, cholera, dysentery, typhoid, and polio. These diseases are estimated to result in high numbers of mortality each year. Human activities and sanitary practices concerning waste disposal significantly increase the probability of disease outbreaks.

In Jamaica, the majority of the population (81 per cent) uses water closet facilities. Still, a notable portion of our people rely on latrines to dispose of their waste. Therefore, the demand for water in quantities to ensure sanitary waste disposal will continue to increase. However, more so, there is the possibility that these facilities, if not properly constructed, utilise the correct method of disposal that is compatible with the geological material and properly sited away from water source to reduce surface and underground contamination — for example, areas with a high water table or underground limestone formations.

Other notable risks in drinking water arise from chemicals such as nitrates, lead, fluoride and arsenic. There are also increasing concerns relating to contamination from pharmaceuticals, pesticides, and microplastics. These will likely make water unsafe if not identified and removed before public supply.

Vulnerable populations and water

The absence of adequate water in quantities that will facilitate good sanitary practices is inextricably linked to and a significant contributor to tropical diseases such as typhoid, cholera, dysentery, and intestinal parasites. The World Health Organization reported that people in low- and middle-income countries die yearly because of inadequate water, sanitation, and hygiene. This represents 60 per cent of total diarrhoeal deaths.

Impact of drought on health

The occurrence of drought is likely to impact water quantity and quality. In addition to the disruption of social and economic activities, sanitation, influenced by a reduction in the availability of potable water, is likely to be affected. Therefore, health and safety linked to sanitation will also be negatively impacted. Where there is limited water supply, there is an increased likelihood that basic sanitation will not be prioritised. This could give rise to gastrointestinal illnesses, acute respiratory infections and dermatological infections. Potable water in adequate supply is, therefore, necessary to reduce the incidents of water-borne or water-related diseases.

Several tropical diseases, some of which have been stated earlier, are linked to water and sanitation, such as typhoid, and are still endemic to some parts of Jamaica. Beyond the endemicity in Jamaica, there is the possibility for the importation of water-borne disease organisms. Cholera, which is also water-borne, is also a concern. As our neighbour Haiti repeatedly grapples with this disease, attention with due consideration must be given to the potential, now more than ever, during periods of drought where sanitation can easily be compromised, exposing the Jamaican population.

The present drought situation in Jamaica and opportunities for intervention

There is an array of opportunities for intervention. Access to improved water, sanitation, and hygiene could prevent avoidable illness and deaths among vulnerable populations such as the young and elderly and the immune-compromised. Prevention efforts should focus on individuals, community, and government.

Individual and communities

Public health education should focus on not only medical treatment. The prevention of illness during drought has a strong environmental component. Environmental protection of the water sources by disposing of their waste using approved methods is critically linked to the intervention. Disposing garbage in gullies, usually water shed areas will pollute surface and underground water. The public needs to be advised on the requirements to approved excreta and wastewater disposal systems that are compatible with the soil type in the area in which it is to build. Guidance should be sought from the local health department when constructing water and liquid waste disposal system.

Chemical containers containing labels with instructions for using and disposing of pesticides and herbicides used domestically and for agricultural, must always be followed. Unused portions of chemicals diluted or otherwise should not be poured down the drain or directly in the soil.

Water provided by the public water supplier may periodically need additional treatment if there has been contamination after leaving the treatment facility. Water can become unsafe for use during instances such as inclement weather, and turbidity is present in the water. Water with high turbidity or water retrieved from undeveloped sources should be treated with five per cent hypochlorite (bleach) or boiled for at least five minutes to kill pathogenic microorganisms especially in emergency and disasters. Note that boiled water will only remain as safe as the cleanliness of the container in which it is placed after boiling. Therefore, ensure containers used to store the water are clean and covered. Articles used to remove the water from the stored water should also be clean.

Tanks that store drinking water should be periodically flushed and sanitised with a food-safe sanitiser, for example, bleach solution mixed as per the manufacturer's instructions on the label.

During times of scarcity, prioritise health and sanitation, using potable water for drinking, hand washing and surfaces vulnerable to pathogenic microbiological contamination.

During scarcity, reuse water to flush toilets or water plants rather than use fresh potable water. Do not allow water to run to waste while showering or washing utensils.

Communities can partner with local authorities to ensure that the regulations and guidelines for waste disposal are practised. Communities can also lobby authorities for improved solid waste collection and improved water services in underserved areas, including consistently maintaining water supply facilities such as community storage tanks and entombed springs.


As the international authority on public health and water quality, the World Health Organization (WHO) leads global efforts to prevent water-related disease, advising governments on the development of health-based targets and regulations.

The organisation has produced a series of guidelines that would go a long way in improving water supply and reducing the effects of disease transmission during drought. And are based on the management of risks. Notable among the guidelines is the need to most effectively identify and manage risks from catchment to consumer, independent surveillance to ensure that water safety plans are effective and health-based targets are being met.

While the statistics show that Jamaica has access to water that can be treated and facilities to provide safe drinking water for the population, some populations are at risk of becoming ill due to quality, quantity, and access issues. The efforts and opportunities to reduce this risk are multifaceted and should not be viewed in isolation. In attaining Vision 2030 goal of Jamaica having a Healthy Natural Environment, accelerated action is needed to ensure safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene for all. As part of its focus, this effort should include sustainable management and use of our water resources to reduce the risk of pollution which increase the risk of ill health, especially during a drought when the challenges multiply threefold among the vulnerable population (children and the elderly) living in urban and rural Jamaica. Notwithstanding, the public has a part to play in ensuring their personal and community health and begin to embrace the practices to protect the water resources as per guidelines and regulations and partner with authorities to reduce the risks to income, increased cost to for medical treatment of water-borne illnesses, disruption in work, education and productivity. It is therefore imperative to be proactive in forecasting the wide ranging implications and actively seek to implement preventative measures to mitigate the impact of drought on water quality and sanitation.

Andrea F Hardware is a public health specialist and lecturer in environmental health at the School of Public Health and Health Technology, University of Technology, Jamaica.

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