How would you spend 100 billion dollars? Ensuring water security in a changing climate

6 min read
Image: WaterAid/Panos/GMB Akash

Climate change poses obvious threats to water and sanitation services – from drought and floods to cyclones and rising sea levels. But does it also provide opportunities to do development differently? Louise Whiting, WaterAid’s Senior Policy Analyst for Water Security and Climate Change, explores this question and presents the latest research on exploring the relationship between climate finance and water security.

One hundred billion dollars is a lot of money by any standard. If the global community owned a plane that dropped out 200 dollars every minute of the day, it would be 950 years before the money completely ran out. Or together we could do something a bit more useful with it, which is what WaterAid hopes will happen with the 100 billion dollars per year that has been promised to act on climate change.

Climate change is a water issue. In fact, we could even call it ‘water change’. Droughts, floods, cyclones and salty groundwater are all water-related challenges that are projected to get much worse in a changing climate. Logically, therefore, the money available to help poor countries adapt should be directed towards ensuring universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), reducing water threats and in doing so enhancing overall water security.

But a new report by WaterAid shows that the money is not being spent on water security. In fact, in-depth research in BangladeshEthiopia and Zambia shows that projects focusing on improving water security only account for a small proportion of overall climate finance. In low-lying Bangladesh, for example, less than half of climate funds are spent on addressing water security and it’s considerably less in Ethiopia and Zambia where just 11% and 3% are allocated respectively.

Climate change, water and poverty are intimately linked

During a recent trip to Bangladesh I saw first-hand how deeply vulnerable communities are to climatic threats such as cyclones and floods, and how important it is to have access to clean water, hygiene and sanitation. Take for example the story of ten-year-old Shusmita Mandal. In May 2009, cyclone Aila hit the southwest coastal region of Bangladesh, killing more than 300 people and displacing thousands more. Shusmita was living with her father in the district of Koira. The cyclone came just as they were trying to piece their lives back together after cyclone Sidr, 18 months earlier. When Aila hit, Shusmita and her father had to flee their home and take shelter on a river embankment.

Life on the embankment was tough, and like millions of others across the world, Shusmita and her father were forced to rely on unsafe water sources. On top of that they didn’t have anywhere to go to the toilet. Shusmita had to walk for more than a kilometre to find safe drinking water as the wells near their new home were contaminated.

For me, Shusmita’s story is a forceful reminder that people who have done little to contribute to climate change are the ones hardest hit by its devastating impacts. It also illustrates why the global climate funds that are being mobilised to help communities adapt to climate change must be directed towards enhancing water security – which includes access to WASH.

Climate finance presents a huge opportunity for development

There are three main costs associated with climate change. There is the cost of reducing the amount of greenhouse gas being pumped into the atmosphere (mitigation costs), the cost of helping people cope with the climatic changes that are already occurring (adaptation costs), and a third, more insidious cost, is the human suffering endured by poor people with little capacity to adapt as the climate continues to change.

If we are to see the drastic reductions in poverty and suffering that are necessary to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the global community must invest heavily in both mitigation and adaptation activities.

More than 100 countries have promised to mobilise US $100 billion US dollars every year, from 2020 onwards in a mix of adaptation and mitigation finance. This significant transference of wealth from north to south presents an opportunity to work towards our development goals in a way that is sustainable and robust to an uncertain climate future.

Development is about making people healthier, wealthier, better educated and more water secure. This is what the SDGs are aiming for. As people gain access to basic services and move away from poverty, they will in parallel develop a higher capacity to cope with climate change. In other words, climate change adaptation and development go hand in hand.

International adaptation finance must, therefore, focus on ensuring we meet the SDGs in a way that is robust to climate change. This means that people’s most basic development needs – such as access to sustainable water, sanitation and hygiene services – are met before money is spent on narrowly defined adaptation projects such as drought-resilient seeds or raising existing sea walls.

A waterlogged road in Bangladesh

WaterAid/ Habibul Haque
A waterlogged road in Bangladesh after cyclone Aila. 

Room for improvement

The obvious opportunity to fund climate-compatible development and water security enhancement using global climate funds is not being fully utilised. The new research has identified several supply and demand side factors that are blocking progress.

In many countries, a clear policy framework for water security is lacking and it is often unclear who has responsibility for ensuring water is included in adaptation plans and processes. In addition, different sectors such as health, education and WASH do not work together as is needed to ensure a coordinated approach to climate change adaptation. Finally, and most critically, countries lack the skills and experience to develop large-scale water security projects that would be eligible for climate funding.

On an international level, climate funds and their donors also need to play their part. Where national systems are weak, global climate funds should provide strengthening support. Countries often report confusion with regards to the types of projects that qualify for climate finance. Global funds therefore, could do better in explaining how climate finance can be used to help countries meet their development objectives. Funds can go one step further by making sure governments design their own plans to help communities adapt to climate change. Funds should also prioritise those countries whose ability to meet the SDGs will be most hampered by climate change.

An opportunity not to be missed

Many of the countries where WaterAid works are not very good at managing their water. Often they have plenty of it, e.g. Bangladesh, but it is unevenly distributed, increasingly dirty and there are no clear rules about how water is shared. Without equitable and effective water resources management, ten-year-old Shusmita, and the millions of others like her, will continue to be water insecure and highly vulnerable to climate change.

The money that has been promised to help people cope with climate change presents a unique opportunity for global leaders to extend access to WASH, to improve the way that water resources are managed, and to ensure that those with water services keep them forever. No matter what happens to the climate.

Louise Whiting tweets as @louwahwah