WaterAid at COP 23: pushing water, sanitation and hygiene up the adaptation agenda

5 min read
Image: WaterAid/Tom Greenwood

This week WaterAid is at the 23rd UN climate conference (COP 23) – presided over by the Pacific island nation of Fiji but hosted on the banks of the Rhine river in Bonn, the home of the global climate change convention. We’re here to speak with decision makers – from government ministers and donors to civil society and business leaders – about why they should prioritise clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene in adaptation plans.

Where does WASH fit in climate change adaptation decisions?

We know that people cannot adapt to climate change without access to sustainable water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services. In the wake of increasingly severe climate impacts – such as this year’s hurricanes and flooding in the Americas and South Asia – access to water and sanitation services is one of the first things people need. Reliable WASH services are a foundation for recovery after disasters and also help people deal with slower-onset changes in the environment. To be resilient to climate change, communities need WASH services that are well designed and maintained to last.

Sra Alzira dos Santos waters her garden, in Liquiça District, Timor-Leste where her community participated in designing and constructing a multi-reservoir gravity flow system for water access. Previously, people in the community needed to walk more than an hour to fetch a bucket of water from their nearest water source – a stream which had many communities living upstream.

We also know that climate change threatens to reverse much of the progress made in getting WASH services to some of the poorest and most climate-vulnerable communities around the world. This is especially unfair given that these populations live without resources and services that are fundamental human rights, and are already being forced to confront the first and worst impacts of climate change, even though they’ve done the least to cause it.

Despite this, most countries are still yet to make WASH a prominent part of their adaptation plans, including many Least Developed Countries (LDCs), where access to WASH remains low. Analysis commissioned by WaterAid in Timor-Leste and Mozambique shows that decisions on WASH and climate change are usually made by different ministries and development partners, which often work in sectoral silos in isolation from one another. In addition, the role of WASH in adaptation tends to be under-developed in national policy documents, and very little climate finance has been allocated so far to support sustainable WASH as a fundamental adaptation measure.

Underlying each of these problems is the fact that many WASH practitioners – at national and sub-national levels – lack the technical capacity to proactively engage with climate change decision-making processes.

If countries are to develop adaptation plans that address people’s most urgent needs, this needs to change. We can’t afford for WASH to be ignored in the current climate process; countries need to prioritise it in the adaptation decisions they make now.

A window of opportunity

We are at an important moment in history, as countries are now establishing their detailed plans for meeting the goals set two years ago in the Paris Agreement. Many discussions at COP 23 will lay the groundwork for next year’s first major milestone under the agreement – the ‘facilitative dialogue’, when countries will take stock of their collective efforts. This stocktake will then inform the next set of pledges from 2020. So although the next two weeks may be largely concerned with technical deliberations rather than momentous announcements by leaders, governments are currently making critical domestic decisions on how they will act on climate change.

Over the next three years, countries will continue to develop and refine the long-term commitments in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), as well as other policies such as National Adaptation Plans (NAPs). Volumes and vehicles for climate finance are also continuing to grow in the context of developed countries’ commitment to jointly mobilise at least US$100 billion a year in climate finance through 2025.

For sustainable WASH to be better integrated and prioritised in adaptation decisions, WaterAid is calling for:

  • Governments and their development partners to prepare climate-resilient WASH strategies, especially in LDCs. These strategies should clearly outline the role of WASH in climate change adaptation and identify the main actions needed to make WASH services sustainable and resilient to climate impacts. These can in turn inform commitments in future NDCs and NAPs, as well as proposals to secure climate finance. 
  • Governments to commit to and incentivise better cross-institutional cooperation on climate change and WASH issues. If the traditional decision-making silos endure, countries risk developing multiple climate action plans that don’t align with sectoral priorities or broader domestic sustainable development targets. We need climate change adaptation planners to include WASH experts in developing the NDCs and NAPs. This is also vital for ensuring that adaptation plans reflect good practices and lessons learned on WASH to date. 
  • Donors and climate financiers to continue to expand their climate finance readiness programmes and fund activities that build LDCs’ knowledge and capacity to manage their own climate change programmes and climate finance. LDCs need major capacity support to bring WASH into adaptation plans – especially at the sub-national levels – and to build national ownership of their climate policies and programmes. This is an important precondition to increase LDCs’ direct access to climate finance so that they can secure, manage and implement the funds themselves. For more detail on the enabling factors and barriers to increasing access to climate finance for WASH, take a look at our report on Timor-Leste.

To connect with us at COP 23, follow @wateraid and @thatslyons on Twitter.