How does WASH help people adapt to climate change?

3 min read
Image: WaterAid/Tom Greenwood

Hannah Crichton-Smith, Programme Sustainability Officer at WaterAid UK, highlights some of the ways in which water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) increase communities’ resilience.

Following the November 2016 UN climate talks in Marrakesh, we thought it was about time we highlighted some of the approaches and practical ways in which WASH helps communities to be more resilient and adapt to the impacts of climate change.

An increase in the unpredictability of weather patterns and frequency of extreme weather events is likely to have detrimental impacts on the marginalised and vulnerable communities with whom WaterAid works. More intense periods of rainfall and increased temperatures have the potential to impact on the health, livelihoods and food security of the most vulnerable. Access to sustainable WASH services and associated improvements to water resources management can mitigate these risks and increase resilience to the impacts of climate change.

WaterAid’s practical interventions

We aim to build long-term resilience to water-related threats and disasters. Over the years, we have developed several approaches which set out to strengthen government institutions to deliver sustainable WASH services that are resilient to the impacts of climate change. In West Africa, the Securing Water Resources Approach combines water resources management with WASH service delivery. By monitoring rainfall and measuring groundwater levels, communities are better able to prioritise their water usage, thereby reducing the risks that unpredictable rainfall could bring in the future – a growing challenge in the Sahel region of Africa, for example. Improved monitoring also helps local authorities to build a better picture of national water-related risks, enabling them to better prioritise areas of intervention and ‘bounce back’ from water-related crises, such as floods.

Many practical interventions increase the resilience of communities and WASH infrastructure to climate change impacts. These are very context-specific and none should be seen as a silver bullet to achieving climate change resilience. Examples include improving access to more reliable groundwater sources and boosting storage capacity through rainwater harvesting and construction of tanks. Rainwater harvesting can be particularly useful for schools and health centres in times of scarcity. Enhancing groundwater recharge, where applicable, and soil water retention can also boost water availability and soil productivity during these times. Improving the safe disposal of hazardous faecal waste helps to mitigate the health risks associated with flooding, while building the capacity of institutions helps to ensure services are restored as soon as possible after disasters.

It is important to remember that marginalised and vulnerable communities with whom WaterAid works already face multiple challenges to accessing WASH services. Increasing demand for water resources due to population growth, unplanned urban expansion, unregulated groundwater extraction, industrial pollution, and uncontrolled wastewater discharge threaten their water security. Climate change poses an additional risk to WASH access, and is expected to exacerbate these existing threats.

New climate-resilient WASH resources

Find out how we're increasing communities' resilience to climate change with sustainable access to clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene >


Hannah Crichton-Smith tweets as @hcrichtonsmith