We all agree on three ways to strengthen communities’ resilience to climate change, now let’s act!

5 min read
Man Bahadur Thami, 46, during the trench digging, Kalinchowk, Dolakha, Nepal, Sep 2020.
Image: WaterAid/ Mani Karmacharya

How can we ensure access to climate-resilient water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services for communities on the frontline of the crisis? After leaders reached consensus on this, we look forward to working with our European partners to ensure the WASH sector can access climate finance and build synergies across sectors, say WaterAid’s Sophie Aujean and Coalition Eau’s Sandra Métayer.

Ask anyone in the street about the impacts of climate change on water, and they will mention drought, water scarcity, floods, water pollution perhaps. And, when it comes to the options for addressing those impacts and supporting adaptation, they will focus on the need to better protect water resources, to use water more efficiently, and so on – and that’s critical, indeed. But what they may not realise is that many people today still do not have access to WASH services. Often, even when those services are available, they are not well managed. If we want communities to be more resilient to the impacts of climate change, they need climate-resilient WASH services.

How do we ensure access to climate-resilient WASH services? What are the key components of climate-resilient WASH programmes? How can we ensure the WASH sector has access to climate finance? How do we build synergies across sectors? These are some of the questions we discussed on 31 May at the event on water security and climate resilience we (Coalition Eau and WaterAid) organised in partnership with the French Presidency of the European Union.

The main learning outcome – and the good news, from our perspective – was that 1) there was such great interest in this challenge of strengthening the resilience of communities through WASH, and 2) there was a strong consensus on how to achieve it.

Why is climate-resilient WASH important to societies?

Everyone agreed that the climate crisis is a water crisis: “There’s either too little or too much water, or it is too polluted,” said Dr Tania Vorwerk, from BMZ in Germany. Lovakanto Ravelomanana, from the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development of Madagascar, reminded us about the recent accumulation of “drought, floods and cyclones one after the other.”

More importantly, there was also agreement that water security is critical to building overall resilience of societies. As Philippe Lacoste from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, “Ignoring water security would mean dismissing part of the necessary responses to reduce vulnerability and strengthen the resilience of our societies.” Furthermore, we should not look at water only: without strong, climate-resilient sanitation systems, people’s health and environment will be compromised.

But how to get there when around one in four people lack safely managed drinking water in their homes, and nearly half the world’s population lacks safely managed sanitation? How to ensure more investments in climate-resilient WASH when WASH accounts for only 1% of existing climate adaptation funding?

The challenges are huge, but there are solutions, and, as we saw, agreement on three main ways forward.

How to ensure communities have climate-resilient WASH

1. Climate change is a global challenge, but has local impacts, which means that solutions must be local too. Furthermore, there’s a strong climate justice dimension to this discussion: communities on the front line of climate change are paying the bill for a problem they did not cause. Policy makers and donors must therefore ensure climate adaptation finance for WASH reaches least-developed countries, and, within them, the most climate-vulnerable communities. Their priority must be to ensure communities currently lacking WASH services and exposed to climate risks have access to resilient services. They need to pay attention to water resources and water services, which are key to capturing, treating and distributing water.

2. Resilient water and sanitation programmes require that we look beyond infrastructure and invest in enabling environment and governance (capacity-building, planning, policies, financing) and in programmes that are informed by local climate risks. But, to achieve that, it is critical to understand the financing landscape and to look at investment complexities. “Climate financing needs to be adapted to water needs,” said Marjeta Jager from the European Commission. The representative of Madagascar called for access to existing funds to be made simpler, because there are currently many cumbersome procedures, while actions on the ground are needed urgently.

For climate finance to reach the WASH sector, donors must support technical capacity and institutional governance of all stakeholders, and offer a range of financing models to support diverse types of climate-resilience interventions. Some useful efforts and initiatives presented at the meeting included:

3. Governments and institutions must work across sectors. Multisectoral and multi-stakeholder approaches are not easy, and require funding, political will and inclusion. But all sectors, including agriculture, energy, research and health, acknowledge the urgent need to address water issues together. For instance, WASH must be integrated into climate laws and plans, and also within health systems. As the Sweden Global health Ambassador said, building communities’ resilience to climate threats means ensuring they also become more resilient to health threats, and water is an illustration of “why we need to join dots between health and climate”.

It’s time to act on financing, governance and cross-sectoral working

There are two upcoming key moments for policy makers, donors, the private sectors, civil society organisations, to demonstrate leadership and act on those three recommendations: COP27 in November in Sharm-el-Sheikh and the UN Conference on water, in March 2023 in New York. The high-level speakers who spoke at our event shared their priorities ahead of the UN March 2023 conference, including: strengthening water governance; taking a human rights-based approach; building on synergies with other sectors; and scaling up WASH-led cross-sectoral approaches.

At Coalition Eau and WaterAid, we look forward to working with the EU, European policy makers and donors and all our partners to ensure those priorities become embedded into tangible actions.

Sophie Aujean is Senior Advocacy Advisor – EU Representative at WaterAid. Sandra Métayer is Coordinator at Coalition Eau. Join us on Twitter @wateraid and @EUwateraid to follow progress on these actions and engage with our advocates.

Top image: Members of the community in Kalinchowk, Dolakha, Nepal, digging a trench for a new water pipeline. Kalinchowk has been identified as being highly vulnerable to climate change.