By Catarina de Albuquerque
Despite the undeniable link between combatting climate change and ensuring universal access to water and sanitation, this connection is rarely reflected in national climate commitments and policies. This represents the first barrier for practical government led implementation of climate resilient water and sanitation action on the ground. Yet, climate change is changing our water through floods, droughts, and rising sea levels. All this in a world where too many people still do not enjoy their human rights to water and sanitation. Lack of access to water, sanitation and hygiene and insufficient measures to address climate change are intertwined – they cannot be solved separately and need to be addressed through multistakeholder engagement.
Climate change has serious consequences, particularly for those living in vulnerable circumstances, and otherwise marginalized. For women and girls especially, the reality of water scarcity, or other climate related disruptions to water supply, often translates into ever increasing numbers of hours seeking out safe water for themselves and their families.
When it comes to securing universal access to water and sanitation by 2030, it is clear that this will only be achieved in tandem with effective government led climate action, which includes attention to water, sanitation and hygiene, and stronger support for climate-resilient WASH services. As a starting point, water and sanitation policies must be aligned with climate commitments and be included in countries’ Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) and the National Adaptations Plans (NAP) that will be submitted to the United Nations under the Paris Agreement ahead of the COP26 meeting in November. Policy development should ensure representation and participation of diverse constituencies and ensure that specific actions are directed towards supporting accountability of all stakeholders, including the private sector and civil society.
Adaptation plans need to incorporate targeted strategies that assist lower-income populations – those who are disproportionately affected by climate change impacts – to navigate new conditions. One example of how to effectively integrate WASH into a NAP comes from Brazil. Starting in 2012, eleven different sectors from across the federal and state governments, regulators, private sector, and civil society organizations looked at models of water shortage for years to come, and discussed the resources needed to mitigate the challenges. This multistakeholder process produced a plan widely embraced by all the players, increasing the legitimacy of the document.
The incremental cost of ensuring new water and sanitation assets are climate-resilient is estimated to be between $0.9 billion and $2.3 billion a year, which represents around 1 per cent of baseline infrastructure investment needs and would reduce the risk of damage to new infrastructure by 50 per cent.
Despite some positive examples of integrating WASH in climate policy, more work is needed to consistently bring the WASH and climate policy objectives together. Recent analysis reveals that while around 9% of global NDC activities relate to SDG 6, they mostly refer to improving water management. Indeed, by mid-2020 only 2% of NDCs were linked with access to sanitation and 3% to wastewater treatment. The low level of climate financing directed at ensuring basic access to water sanitation and hygiene is another indicator of concern, as it is estimated to be only a tenth of climate finance for water-related projects, accounting for 0.3% of total global climate finance.[i]
At the same time, the incremental cost of ensuring new water and sanitation assets are climate-resilient is estimated to be between $0.9 billion and $2.3 billion a year. While not negligible, these investments represent around 1 per cent of baseline infrastructure investment needs and would reduce the risk of damage to new infrastructure by 50 per cent.[ii] The potential benefits of incorporating resilience into WASH are therefore enormous.
Peru is one country that has successfully implemented climate resilient water supply and sanitation in its flood prone Amazon region. Approximately 70% of the rural population in this region lacks access to basic water and sanitation services. The lack of adequate sanitation combined with floods leads to the use of contaminated water for drinking in areas repeatedly exposed to floods, resulting in severe diseases and a high child mortality rate. To address this, Peru’s Ministry of Housing, Construction and Sanitation has pioneered a climate smart approach of elevated (above observed and projected flood levels) sanitation systems that also feature rainwater capture to counteract the problem of flooding and bridge the gap in access to water, sanitation, and hygiene.
The private sector and civil society can play a key role and support efforts to underpin effective leadership. This will make climate adaptation and mitigation efforts more effective by bringing together water resources, water and sanitation service delivery, as well as health, gender, food, energy and climate expertise. These efforts also present opportunities to further align commitments for strengthening mutual accountability for delivering on both climate and WASH related goals.
Sanitation and Water for All’s (SWA) Mutual Accountability Mechanism (MAM) provides a mechanism for governments and other stakeholders to make SMART commitments based on national plans and facilitate reaching consensus on specific actions each actor will take to achieve their short- to medium-term targets on the road to reaching the SDGs. SWA will make the MAM a vehicle for bridging climate priorities, including those included in NDCs and NAPs, as well as WASH adaptation and mitigation priorities and climate financing.
The global climate crisis is inextricably linked to water. Securing water for communities, economies, and ecosystems is critical for poverty reduction, green energy transformation, and creating a buffer from natural disasters. If we are to create a sustainable future, water and sanitation need to be seen through a climate resilience lens.
This guest article was authored by Sanitation and Water for All CEO Catarina de Albuquerque.
[i] Nathaniel Mason, et.al (2020). Just add water: a landscape analysis of climate finance for water. Overseas Development Institute (ODI).
[ii] Hallegatte, S., et al. (2019). Lifelines: The Resilient Infrastructure Opportunity (Sustainable Infrastructure Series). World Bank Group.