Five ways to embed climate change in locally led WASH programmes

7 min read
WaterAid/Vlad Sokhin

Many civil society organisations recognise the need to consider our changing climate in community programmes but don’t know where to start. To address this, WaterAid Australia and The Institute for Sustainable Futures partnered with WaterAid Timor-Leste to help them embed the effects of climate change in its WASH programmes.

Climate change is an increasingly urgent challenge in Timor-Leste, and its effects are felt most acutely by communities. In the city of Liquiçá, where WaterAid Timor-Leste supports 500 people, the community depends on rain-fed agriculture for their livelihoods. But climate change is already making rainfall more irregular, with longer dry spells, and causing higher temperatures. These changes affect the community's ability to grow crops such as maize, coffee, cassava, coconut, sweet potatoes and fruit. So far, the community has responded by changing where they get water, with some switching to unsafe sources such as surface water from rivers and lakes.

Like many civil society organisations, WaterAid Timor-Leste recognises the effects of climate change on the communities it works with – particularly relating to water scarcity – and the need to consider our changing climate in community programmes. However, this requirement is new for many local civil society organisations, including WaterAid Timor-Leste, and many are unclear on where or how to start.

To address this challenge, WaterAid Timor-Leste and WaterAid Australia recently partnered with The Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney (ISF-UTS) on a Water for Women Research Award. Funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the purpose of the project was to support WaterAid Timor-Leste to address and embed the effects of climate change in its water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programmes. The project – Climate change response for inclusive WASH – aimed to:

  • Support WaterAid Timor-Leste to assess how climate change affects WASH services, and how it disproportionately affects women, girls, people with disabilities, and poor and marginalised people in the country
  • Co-design activities and recommendations for integrating climate change considerations into WaterAid Timor-Leste’s existing rural water service programmes
  • Integrate those co-designed activities into WaterAid Timor-Leste’s existing cycle of projects
  • Encourage other WASH practitioners and CSO partners to adopt WaterAid Timor-Leste’s climate change assessment findings and methods

Here, we share five examples of how this research project supported WaterAid Timor-Leste, and all through locally led approaches to adapt to climate change.

1. We adopted a strong partnership approach

From the start, the project team took the concept and principles of partnership seriously. Partners from WaterAid Australia, WaterAid Timor-Leste and ISF-UTS wanted to build and maintain a collaborative partnership as we know that this way of working often leads to transformational outcomes. In practice, this meant being aware of power imbalances, being transparent about each partner’s various motivations, and having clear and agreed methods of communication.

Representatives from the three partner organisations spent time together in Timor-Leste to design, develop and then pilot activities that would introduce communities to the ways climate change affects their access to safe water. Each partner shared previous experiences and lessons they’d learned, allowing the team to identify and decide on which tools and activities would best suit the purpose and context of the project.

This month-long face-to-face collaboration in 2019 helped the partners develop relationships and a deeper understanding of each other’s skills and experiences. The working relationship was also made easier by the fact that one ISF-UTS researcher speaks Tetum, the language spoken in Timor-Leste, and has worked there in the past. This meant that team meetings could be conducted in Tetum (instead of reverting to English), further supporting the shift of power to the local partner, WaterAid Timor-Leste.

Felisberta da Costa, 57, carrying jerry cans filled with water in a basket on her back attached by a headband walking along a rocky dried up river bed. Vatuvou Village, Maubara post-administrative area, Liquica, Timor-Leste. November 2019.
Felisberta da Costa, 57, carries jerry cans filled with water along a rocky, dried-up river bed in Liquica, Timor-Leste, November 2019.
WaterAid/Vlad Sokhin

2. We designed research activities together

The project team – which included WaterAid Timor-Leste’s implementing partner Fundasaun Hafoun Timor Lorosa’e (FHTL) – developed the research activities that would be trialled with communities collaboratively.

The research activities included a climate impact diagram to help communities identify the links between climate change, and the effects on their access to water, sanitation and hygiene, and livelihoods. Another activity called “Who does, who decides during climate change scenarios?” encouraged community members to consider the different ways that men and women are involved in, and affected by, WASH issues.

During the pilot process, all project partners trialled, reflected on and, where necessary, adjusted the research activities in response to feedback from the community. This adaptive and flexible approach not only adheres to many of the principles of locally led adaptation, but also gave WaterAid Timor-Leste, FHTL and the communities they work with the power to decide which adaptation strategies and activities should be prioritised.

3. We used local experiences of climate change and resilience as a starting point

Our research activities took communities’ diverse experiences of climate change and resilience as a starting point. The communities told us about:

  • The physical impacts on their access to water supplies, such as flooding and landslides that contaminate or destroy water sources, and dry spells that make water less available
  • Household workloads and decision-making: women from the community said that they spend more time treating water during the wet season while men spend time on repairing the water supply infrastructure. During disasters, community meetings are more male-dominated
  • Governance, particularly the responsibilities of the water committee to coordinate action before expected extreme weather, and recovery after a severe weather event.

The project team made sure that they carefully navigated conversations when community members explained how extreme weather changes affected their access to water and livelihoods, as this can be disempowering for communities. Any discussions about the effects of climate change also involved solutions, existing strengths within the community and the support that WaterAid Timor-Leste could provide. We found that using local examples and perspectives of climate change made attempts to build resilience more likely to succeed.

Graciana Pereira, 62, in her kitchen garden. Timor-Leste. 2017
Graciana Pereira, 62, waters plants in her kitchen garden in Panderi community, Liquica district, Timor-Leste.
WaterAid/Jerry Galea

4. We built on the strengths of the community

The project team focused on the existing strengths of the community – such as traditional knowledge about land management and agriculture, traditional relationships that facilitate cooperation and respect, and links to government – to integrate climate change into rural water programmes and understand community responses to climate change. Building on existing processes and strengths can be a shortcut to sustainable transformations, and a way to empower and motivate governments and civil society to act. This was done in three ways in our research.

  • We aligned project activities with WaterAid’s pre-existing project management processes, for example, embedding climate change assessments within WaterAid Timor Leste’s existing project cycle framework.
  • We aligned the research with government policies. WaterAid Timor-Leste led the project team in ensuring activities supported the government’s Community Action Plan (CAP) and approaches for rural WASH programmes.
  • We prioritised local knowledge and resources. Taking a strengths-based approach can be an empowering way to first discuss climate change with communities, highlighting the fact that communities have considerable knowledge and strengths to respond to climate change. This approach also helps communities identify where external support is needed.

5. We used gender and social inclusion to begin conversations

We know that climate change increases inequalities and barriers for adaptation among disadvantaged groups of people, so our community activities prioritised voices from marginalised and disadvantaged groups. Conversations about how social structures (including gender) influence how different people are affected by climate change impacts were encouraged sensitively and benefitted greatly from being facilitated by WaterAid Timor-Leste. This part of the research took a ‘do no harm’ approach, which was important given the culturally embedded nature of gender roles in the community. As a result, WaterAid Timor-Leste and community members themselves had a greater understanding of the gendered nature of decision-making, workload, responsibilities for WASH – and how climate change will affect these.

Anna Gero and Jeremy Kohlitz are Research Principals at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney. Angelo Ximenes is a WASH Engineering Specialist for WaterAid Timor-Leste.