By Archis Ambulkar
Writing a technical article during these unprecedented times of COVID-19 pandemic has proved to be a challenging task. While government officers and health professionals are risking their lives to alleviate this grave pandemic, many of the water professionals are required to follow stay-at-home orders for keeping families and societies safe. Considering the extent and gravity, no doubt this epidemic will have long-lasting effects on our lives. The post-COVID era will see many changes in how the water profession operates. This article is an attempt to provide an overview of possible impacts on the water industry and the potential ways for sector recovery as nations deal with the disease at several levels.
Historically, societies have faced grave epidemics many times. From the B.C. era to recent times, outbreaks such as Spanish flu, cholera, Ebola, and H1N1 flu have left devastating impacts on human beings. Among them, COVID-19 appears to stand out distinctly and is adversely affecting public health across the globe. In a short span of time, this illness has reached many countries and continents. Asian countries, European nations, South and North American countries, and several others are seeing prominent impacts. Each country is at a unique stage of this pandemic and has different set of problems to deal with. Their social, economic, and health impacts are becoming more prominent with every passing day. Governments are pushing for social distancing, stay-at-home orders, and testing to minimize public interactions and spread. These actions have created ripple effects on the functioning of entrepreneurs, businesses, and corporations. Like many other sectors, the water industry has also been affected by these series of events. As water professionals, it is important that we contemplate ongoing impacts and foresee future changes that this pandemic might have on the sector.
The first and foremost impact the water industry has seen is the temporary relocation of certain workforce from offices to home setting. Working from home is not a common functioning mode for the water sector. To perform engineering, designing, planning, or construction work, professionals are expected to be physically present in offices or on the sites. Interaction and coordination with other disciplines such as electrical, mechanical, structural, and other staff members is an integral part of the water consulting profession. Although provisional in nature, work-from-home is still a relatively unexplored realm for the water sector. Employers are making adjustments to keep staff members actively engaged, billable, and productive during this transition. Companies have started relying more on internet based systems and software to maintain effective communication between management, engineers, and other employees remotely.
Cease of activities on several levels are also affecting functioning of government offices, municipal clients, private industries, and regulatory authorities. These unexpected situations will impact flow of funds, regulatory work, construction activities, and other key aspects related to water and wastewater infrastructure projects. Due to reduced work productivity, project schedules, milestones, grants, and loans may experience delays and interruptions. Also, to overcome any economic setbacks, clients may re-prioritize projects. Some ventures will be restarted while others may get halted or postponed.
Time-sensitive permits, proposals, bids, and environmental actions will need to be revisited to ensure appropriate actions are taken. Based on financial situations and billable work, workforce adjustments and company policy changes might also happen.
Such conditions will persist until epidemic impacts are alleviated and working life in the water sector goes back to normal. Transition from stay-at-home life to normal working in offices and facilities will be the biggest challenge for employers. Obviously, it will greatly rely upon federal, state, and local government policies and directions. Changes might happen gradually or in phases, where some staff will take charge of work in the office and remaining employees will join slowly at a later date. However, these transitions will vary from company to company. But for sure, every entity will come out of this outbreak and start working full-fledged in offices and worksites at some point down the road.
While switching to new normal, companies will be required to review immediate and long-term health impacts on workforce. Routine work in the water profession involves socialization and one-on-one interactions on several occasions. These may typically include project meetings, client meetings, bid openings, construction activities, vendor presentations, seminars, educational training, conferences, office events, and many more. Such daily interactions would need to take into account for any potential aftereffects of the pandemic. Companies will need to innovate their approach for social distancing at work places until proper solutions are developed to counter the epidemic.
During the transitioning stage, coordination between corporate and satellite offices will be more reliant on online services than actual personnel movements. Domestic and international travel may remain limited. This can affect marketing activities, client relations development, and pursuing new projects. At workplaces like offices, laboratories, and treatment plants, employers may start emphasizing more on sanitation and hygiene. Companies may add newer protocols for use of sanitizers and other disinfectants. Plant operators and staff may be encouraged to use masks or other protective equipment to ensure additional safety. Some organizations might also review staff sitting arrangements and socialization places within the company. To discourage large gatherings, trainings or seminars may be prominently offered on web-based systems rather than in-person presentations. Also, state, regional, and national conferences may opt for special social distancing measures while developing major events.
There will definitely be many lessons learned from current pandemic that will determine future functioning of the water industry. Looking forward, some companies may even be encouraged to explore flexibility of work-from-home options for selective profiles to minimize financial losses if similar situations arise in the future. They will also need to review existing company-wide online systems and ensure that organization’s internet-based programs are robust, well-developed, and secured for potential remote operations on a larger scale. Facilities like treatment plants, pump stations, and others may increase emphasis on wireless communications and automation to minimize worker exposures to unhygienic environments.
Situations are still volatile and it is difficult to predict how things will evolve. The recovery process will take time and mostly vary from place to place. Improvements would also depend upon the pandemic timeline, current stage, and the country’s overall response to the situations. Some hard-hit countries like the United States, Spain, Italy, Germany, UK, China, and others might take longer to attain normalcy. As things settle down, we would see restarting of stalled projects, improved flow of funds, increased billable hours, and all staff members getting back to their normal working modes. Overall, global impacts of the COVID pandemic on the water industry can be better assessed once situations get in total control. Being flagbearers of environment and sanitation, we can use this time period as an opportunity to review every aspect of our day-to-day functioning and determine how it can be improved to protect employees, clients, and the public from the after-effects of the epidemic.
Archis Ambulkar is an internationally acclaimed water expert and author of the well-received book “Guidance for Professional Development in Drinking Water and Wastewater Industry”, published by the International Water Association (U.K.). He has made vital contributions towards Oxford University’s Research Encyclopedia on the topic “Nutrient Pollution and Wastewater Treatment Systems” and Britannica Encyclopedia for its "Water Purification" and "Wastewater Treatment" sections. Mr. Ambulkar has written numerous international publications and participated with United Nations programs.