Gender equality and climate resilience are crucial to achieve water, sanitation and hygiene for all

3 min read
Teodora Nzingo, nearly 80 years old, showing how the flood waters have gone into the water storage tanks and filled up the pit latrines so causing more flooding in Kigamboni, Tanzania. January 2020.
Image: WaterAid/ Sam Vox

Climate change can impact on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services and that can create inequalities for people, particularly when it comes to gender. With these three things – climate change, gender and WASH – so closely interlinked, we must thoroughly address the challenges that climate change and gender inequalities present to achieving WASH for all.

When you think about climate change, what comes to mind? You may think about crops shrivelled from long-term droughts or homes damaged by cyclones. But have you ever considered what can change in people’s daily lives and how the same climate catastrophe can affect each person differently, depending on who they are and what resources they have?

People feel the impacts of climate change most through changes to water resources. Among other issues, these changes affect people’s physical access to WASH services and their livelihoods and wellbeing. These factors are all interlinked and have knock-on impacts, which can create unequal burdens for different people.

In other words, climate change exacerbates existing inequalities and gender is no exception. For example, women typically need to use more water than men, for caregiving and during menstruation, pregnancy and breastfeeding. This means that when water is scarce due to higher temperatures or droughts, women may not be able to meet their basic needs for water and personal hygiene. And when floods destroy toilets, women and girls may have to travel further to find somewhere to manage their periods or relieve themselves, which increases their risk of experiencing violence and harassment.

We must acknowledge that climate change and gender inequalities reduce our ability to achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6: water, sanitation and hygiene for all by 2030. People living in vulnerable areas need climate-resilient WASH facilities and behaviours that can still be used during and after extreme weather events, or that can be restored quickly to full capacity. Services that are sustainable and inclusive improve resilience to climate change and are an important adaptation measure for future climate threats.

Our new report, Gender equality and climate resilience: foundations for water, sanitation and hygiene for all, highlights the intersection between WASH, climate change and gender equality, and articulates examples of the impacts on WASH services and different genders from climate challenges, such as extreme flooding, saline intrusion and prolonged droughts.

The report outlines three key opportunities that can help address the gender inequalities and climate impacts that often arise during work to expand access to or improve WASH services:

  1. Understand diverse needs and vulnerabilities to reach everyone
  2. Connect fragmented silos to generate true resilience
  3. Address power imbalances for meaningful solutions

A combination of approaches is needed to advance each of these opportunities and make progress on SDG 6. These approaches include initial multi-contextual analysis, inclusive partnerships, multi-sectoral engagement and the integration of diverse knowledge and experiences.

Applying these approaches will get us closer to reaching our goal, once and for all.

  • Kathryn Pharr is WaterAid's Senior Policy Advisor for International Climate Action

Top image: Teodora Nzingo shows how floodwaters have inundated the water storage tanks and pit latrines near her home, causing more flooding in Kigamboni, Tanzania.