Climate-resilient sanitation coalition: getting sanitation back on the global agenda

4 min read
Anita Das (40) now has a hygienic and climate-resilient toilet which she reguarly cleans. Due to the WaterAid awareness program most people are now conscious about good hygiene practices in this area.
Image: WaterAid/ DRIK/ Habibul Haque

Despite the proven links between improved sanitation and climate change adaptation and mitigation, sanitation is still not part of the climate conversation. This blog covers why sanitation must be a global priority to ensure the resilience of the infrastructure and services we depend on, and to harness effective and under-utilised mitigation approaches. 

We have now passed the critical halfway point to many of our current global development goals and 2030 agendas, including Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG6) ‘Water and Sanitation for All’. Concerningly, over the past seven years we have seen SDG6, and sanitation in particular, being neglected in global and national climate policy and practice, resulting in stagnating progress and a lack of resources and attention to this ‘cornerstone’ SDG.

We will not achieve SDG6, nor any of the national and international goals that are intrinsically linked to water and sanitation for all, without getting sanitation firmly on the global agenda and back on track.

Sanitation is not only about toilets

Globally, two out of every five people still don't have safely managed sanitation. That is, sanitation facilities that are not shared with other households and where human waste is safely disposed of on-site or removed and treated off-site. However, sanitation is not only about toilets and the safe disposal of human waste, even though these are sorely lacking in many communities and households. Critically, it is also about managing increasing levels of sanitation-related pollution in our waterways, which is magnified through ever-increasing climate-related hazards, such as flooding and sea-level rises.

  • The impacts are not only limited to humans. Entire ecosystems and other species suffer as a result of our inadequate sanitation systems.
  • Wetland and coastal areas, including coral reefs, are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of poorly managed sanitation, affecting the communities and ecosystems who depend on them. If our waterways do not thrive, we cannot thrive.
  • Unmanaged sanitation is not only a contributor to poor health outcomes and the spread of diseases such as cholera, it is a major contributor to the climate crisis. Wastewater treatment is estimated to contribute at least 5% of global methane emissions and there is emerging evidence that this may be an underestimate. These emissions largely stem from anaerobic digestion in pit latrines and septic tanks that are not frequently emptied, and from wastewater treatment plants that don't capture methane. Actively and safely managed sanitation can reduce these emissions.
A boy walks towards an open-air hanging toilet in Khulna, Bangladesh.
An open-air hanging toilet that does not maintain good hygiene practices. Tidewaters overflow this toilet area regularly. A climate-induced natural disaster like a cyclone, flood and sea-level rises brings big challenges for maintaining good hygiene. Dacop, Khulna, Bangladesh. August 2020
Image: WaterAid/DRIK/Habibul Haque

An evidence-based call to action

The Climate Resilient Sanitation Coalition, formed in 2022, launched a Sanitation Call to Action at COP27. The messages from the Coalition are evidence-based and clear, directed at influencing national and global policy, investment and planning relating to water and sanitation and climate-resilient development.

  1. Climate-resilient sanitation must be integrated in global and national climate policy and practice, and equally, climate resilience must be integrated into all sanitation investment and infrastructure.
  2. Sanitation’s contribution to emissions is much more important than previously thought. More than 60% of the water supply and sanitation sector’s emissions are attributed to sanitation. A 2022 study showed high emissions from on-site systems, which are used extensively in low- and middle-income countries. In Kampala, for example, sanitation produced the equivalent of 189 kt CO2 per year and may represent more than half the city's total emissions.
  3. Extreme weather events play havoc with (non-climate-resilient) sanitation systems. During floods, sewage is released into combined stormwater systems, pit latrines collapse, and faecal contamination spreads. During droughts, sewers become blocked, and pour-flush toilets cannot work. 
  4. Actively managed sanitation improves climate resilience, while also reducing greenhouse emissions. There is no ‘magic bullet’, but including active management of sanitation systems in policy and resourcing is an efficient and effective way of addressing both climate and resilience goals.
A man stands outside a newly built toilet in Papua New Guinea.
Paul Shishu (36) outside a newly built toilet. Kairiru Island, Wewak District, Papua New Guinea. August 2021
Image: WaterAid/Dion Kombeng

Sanitation can be a climate solution

The Climate Resilient Sanitation Coalition calls for a narrative shift; instead of seeing sanitation as a climate problem, we must all see increased and sustained investment in climate-resilient sanitation as a climate solution – because it is. It can both reduce emissions and increase the health, wellbeing and resilience of communities and the ecosystems on which we all depend.

How can you take action?

  1. Read our Sanitation Call to Action.
  2. Include climate resilience in sanitation policies, plans, budgets and services and increase political commitments, particularly to the poorest and most climate-affected communities.
  3. Incorporate climate-resilient sanitation into National Adaptation Plans, National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans, and Nationally Determined Contributions and strengthen the climate rationale for investment.
  4. Strengthen government systems and capacities to provide climate-resilient sanitation services.
  5. Invest in and improve the evidence base for effective adaptation and emissions reduction in climate-resilient sanitation.
  6. Develop and implement affordable, innovative, climate-resilient sanitation technologies and service models.

This blog is written by the Climate Resilient Sanitation Coalition, a growing coalition of international organisations, global research organisations and practitioners in the fields of water and sanitation. Among its members are WaterAid, UNICEF, the World Bank, World Health Organization, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and many other research institutions and funds.

Top image: Anita Das (40) now has a hygienic and climate-resilient toilet which she reguarly cleans. Due to the WaterAid awareness program, most people are now conscious about good hygiene practices in this area. Dacop, Khulna, Bangladesh. August 2020