Reflections on water and COVID-19

I’ve never reblogged someone’s work before but Associate Professor Susan Petterson raises an important consideration here. We need sound analytical thinking as we face the COVID-19 pandemic, she brings her academic skills into focus here with two important posts that explore what we currently know about fecal transmission via our sewage management system.

Here in Singapore where I am living we drink recycled water.

Water demand in Singapore is currently about 430 million gallons a day (mgd) that is enough to fill 782 Olympic-sized swimming pools, with homes consuming 45% and the non-domestic sector taking up the rest. By 2060, Singapore’s total water demand could almost double, with the non-domestic sector accounting for about 70%. By then, NEWater and desalination will meet up to 85% of Singapore’s future water demand. Singapore Water Story


I don’t think much about the water I drink. It comes both the Kallang and Singapore Rivers flow into the artificial water storage area know as Marina Bay. Water from here along with new supplies from Malaysia is what we drink.


Figure 1: Marina Bay
Figure 2: Marina Bay

Here in Singapore the drinking water quality seems fine although I long for the days when I lived in Lithgow and the water we used was drawn from a dam on the edge of the Blue Mountains national park. Over the years I’ve become fairly astute about when and when I can drink water in the environment. It helps to have a background in fluvial morphology and geomorphology. When I was working in Ainaro, Timor L’Este in 2017 I had no hesitation in drinking tap water.  I knew where the dam was and could follow the pies that served the homestay where I was living.  Similarly, I’ve drunk water from various springs in Indonesia though I would never drink tap water there.

Last year an Indonesian friend visited me here in Singapore. He was thirsty and asked for a drink of water. I’ll never forget the shocked expression on his face when I simply filled his glass from the tap in my kitchen.

I place a lot of trust in the quality of the water available here.

There are plans to integrate the system even further. Singapore’s Water Agency explains:

Our holistic approach to water management can be distilled into three key strategies:

  • Collect every drop of water
  • Reuse water endlessly
  • Desalinate seawater

An important question is, can we continue to do this. Stuart Khan presents an important review of what we know of COVID-19 and the options for safe town water.

Susan Petterson’s Blog “OPINION: Faecal shedding of SARS-CoV-2, a snapshot of current data and implications for the water industry” follows

COVID-19 Waterblog

There has been quite some talk about SARS-CoV-2 shedding in faeces and what that might mean for the water industry. As I see it, there are two aspects to this conversation: the first is a concern that sewage may contain infectious SARS-CoV-2 viruses; and the second relates to the more theoretical potential of using SARS-CoV-2 RNA concentration in sewage as a public health surveillance tool.

1. Is sewage contaminated with infectious SARS-CoV-2 viruses?

While COVID-19 is primarily a respiratory illness, the possibility of faecal-oral transmission was raised quite early (Yeo et al. 2020). From the information we have to date, it appears as though many people infected will excrete SARS-CoV-2 RNA in their faeces. A snapshot of reported presence in stool samples includes:

  • Six studies reported from China: 9 out of 17 patients were positive (Pan et al. 2020) ; 39 out of 73 patients positive (Xiao et al. 2020)…

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