An unfolding reality: how communities experience loss and damage through water, sanitation and hygiene

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Extreme weather events, rising sea levels and changing precipitation patterns not only threaten ecosystems but also jeopardise people’s livelihoods and wellbeing. This blog explores the intricate connections between climate change and loss and damage experienced through water and sanitation.

On the first day of COP28, a landmark agreement was made; the establishment of a loss and damage fund to support those countries that are especially vulnerable to climate change to deal with its effects. The accord followed a year of climate emergencies and a wait of more than three decades after such a fund was first proposed by Vanuatu in 1991. Robert Van Lierop, Vanuatu’s then ambassador to the United Nations, proposed an “insurance pool” which would be used to “compensate the most vulnerable small island and low-lying coastal developing countries for loss and damage resulting from sea level rise”.

What is loss and damage?

Loss and damage can occur from either gradual or severe climatic occurrences, and affect both human societies and natural ecosystems. Loss refers to permanent and irreversible harm, such as riverbank erosion, land lost to rising sea levels or diminishing freshwater sources due to desertification and salinity encroachment. In Bangladesh, for example, 22.3 million hectares of land have been affected by increasing salinity between 1973 and 2009, according to the country’s Soil Resources Development Institute.

Damage, meanwhile, refers to reparable injury such as damage to infrastructure caused by climate change-related extreme weather events.

Non-economic loss and damage

Certain forms of loss and damage can be measured in economic terms, such as lost income or assets. Other forms of loss and damage cannot be so easily quantified in economic terms. This non-economic loss and damage includes the loss of human life, biodiversity, territory, ecosystems, cultural heritage, Indigenous and local knowledge, as well as physical, mental and maternal health.

In Bangladesh, the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research has observed a notable increase in the number of miscarriages in a small village located in Chakaria, near Cox’s Bazaar on the east coast. From 2012 to 2017, scientists tracked the progress of 12,867 pregnancies and discovered that women living within 20 kilometers of the coastline and seven meters above sea level were 1.3 times more likely to experience miscarriages compared to their counterparts living inland. Scientists attribute this discrepancy to the heightened salinity of the water these women drink, a change believed to be induced by the climate crisis.

And in Barek Tila, a small hilly area of Sunamganj District near the border between Bangladesh and India, doctors have also reported the physical strain on women and girls of having to walk further to collect clean water after the springs they relied on dried up.

“Women and girls visit me often for the treatment of their back aches, muscle pain and waterborne diseases like diarrhoea and dysentery,” says Dr Hafiz Uddin Ahmed. However, “it is usually not possible for them to afford the prescribed medicine for the desired period of recovery”.

These non-economic losses and damages have materialised earlier, more swiftly, and with more severity than anticipated, exerting a disproportionately acute toll on countries in the Global South.

Teodora Nzingo shows how floodwater has seeped into water storage tanks and filled pit latrines, causing more flooding, in Kigamboni, Tanzania. January 2020.
Teodora Nzingo shows how floodwater has seeped into water storage tanks and filled pit latrines, causing more flooding, in Kigamboni, Tanzania. January 2020. Image: WaterAid/ Sam Vox

How is loss and damage experienced through water and sanitation?

We know that humans primarily experience the effects of climate change through water, whether through rising sea levels, floods, cyclones, and droughts. But these events, in turn, can have severe impacts on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services.

Rising sea levels can contaminate freshwater supplies, rendering them unsafe to drink. Cyclones and floods can damage vital WASH facilities, disrupting water supplies and overwhelming sewage systems, leading to the release of untreated wastewater into rivers and seas. This not only poses a direct threat to aquatic ecosystems but also increases the likelihood of waterborne diseases, such as cholera, which risk the health and wellbeing of local communities. The 2022 Pakistan floods, for example, affected 33 million people, led to the loss of 1,730 lives, and caused an estimated (USD)$270 million of damage to WASH facilities. And during Cyclone Amphan, which hit Eastern India and Bangladesh in May 2020, 18,235 water points and 40,894 latrines were destroyed.

The road ahead

To date, wealthy countries have pledged just more than $660m to the fund agreed at COP28. But this figure falls far short of the estimated $400bn that is needed each year (PDF) to address economic and non-economic loss and damage in the Global South.

Meanwhile, loss and damage to water and sanitation services is an unfolding reality for many communities. As they grapple with the immediate consequences of damaged infrastructure and compromised water quality, it is crucial to focus on adaptation strategies that build resilience and help communities bounce back sooner after climate shocks.

The mechanisms of the Loss and Damage Fund are still under discussion, and whether its funds can be accessed by the most vulnerable or used for WASH facilities is still to be determined.

But by acknowledging the interdependence of climate, water and sanitation, and the need for various financial mechanisms – such as the Global Shield, the Adaptation Fund, the Green Climate Fund, and the Loss and Damage Fund – we can ensure climate justice and climate-resilient WASH services for all, and work towards sustainable solutions that safeguard these vital resources for generations to come.

Adnan Ibne Abdul Qader is WaterAid Bangladesh's Climate and Water Governance Specialist.

Top image: Abdur Rajjak Molla, 60, and his family lost everything to Cyclone Amphan. The walls and roof of their house were broken, and they had no food, safe water to drink, and no sanitation facilities. Hajrakhali, Satkhira, Bangaldesh, February 2021.