What is climate-resilient water, sanitation and hygiene and why is it important?  

5 min read
WaterAid/ Basile Ouedraogo

As COP28 fast approaches, we are making the case that water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) are fundamental for people’s resilience to the impacts of climate change. But why is WASH so important? Here we answer four important, frequently asked questions about climate resilience and WASH. 

How does climate change affect WASH?

Climate change is happening in an era of increased demand for water, environmental degradation, demographic change and pollution. It results in the following hazards:

  • Rising temperatures
  • More frequent and intense floods and cyclones
  • Irregular rainfall and droughts
  • Sea level rises

These hazards interact with existing threats, all of which impact on WASH in the following ways:

  • Reduced availability of water and increased concentration of contaminants in already shrinking surface water and groundwater bodies. Droughts can drive water shortages and migration, and can increase pressure on WASH services that already function poorly. Droughts can also affect hygiene behaviours and the functioning of sanitation systems as water is less available for handwashing and flushing.
  • Increased rainfall, flooding and cyclones which can damage water supply and sanitation infrastructure. Flooded sewerage systems contaminate water bodies and the environment as floodwaters flush pathogens and pollutants from sewers, latrine pits and places used for open defecation into water supplies, and overwhelm treatment facilities. This poses a serious challenge to public health and places greater pressure on healthcare systems.
  • Climate change-induced sea level rises which contribute towards the increased salinity of coastal water resources, rendering ground and surface water unusable. Salinity can also destroy sanitation systems such as septic tanks and treatment plants.
Rasheeda, 45, and her daughter, Shaista, collect stagnant floodwater to wash their clothes.
Rasheeda, 45, and her daughter, Shaista, collect stagnant floodwater to wash their clothes. Their family has been living in a tent after monsoon floods submerged their village in Sindh, Pakistan.
WaterAid/ Khaula Jamil

How do WASH services and improved hygiene behaviours build resilience to climate change?

Without access to basic services such as WASH people are vulnerable to water shortages, disease and malnutrition. But WASH services can improve people’s resilience to climate change by:

  • Protecting people from disease meaning they can stay healthy and are better able to cope with climate-related challenges.
  • Providing a reliable and safe water supply so that clean water is available to people, even during dry periods.
  • Increasing water storage so it can be delivered when and where it is needed, providing a critical buffer in times of scarcity.
  • Reducing the risk of contaminating water supplies and the environment during floods.
  • Improving hygiene practices to provide protection against disease. This, in turn, reduces the risk of knock-on health crises and subsequent pressure on healthcare systems following flooding events, which ultimately makes communities more resilient.

Strong systems are needed to ensure that WASH services and improved hygiene behaviours are quickly restored and sustained after climate shocks. Building strong WASH systems should therefore form a central part of any climate change adaptation or resilience strategy.

Parul Begum standing near the household rainwater harvesting system plant beside her poultry farm. She received this plant from climate resilience projects funded by HSBC and WaterAid.
Parul Begum stands near the household rainwater harvesting system she installed at her poultry farm.
WaterAid/ DRIK/ Habibul Haque

What is climate-resilient WASH?

Climate resilience refers to the ability of a system or community to quickly and efficiently anticipate, absorb and recover from the effects of climate change.

Climate-resilient WASH, then, refers to WASH services and behaviours that continue to deliver benefits, or are appropriately restored, within a changing climate context and despite climate-induced hazards. It involves:

Understanding hazards posed by climate change in a given area and the extent to which WASH and people are vulnerable and exposed to those hazards.

Designing responses to those hazards into WASH services and improved behaviours.

Integrating WASH and water resource management:The resilience and water security of households and communities can be improved by combining the delivery of WASH services with the principles and practices of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM). These are applied to address equity and inclusion, and issues of competition and conflict between different water users. The process also aims to strengthen the link between communities and government institutions and to ensure support is available to resolve disputes and leverage investment in service improvements.

Building more redundancy, contingency and durability into service provision to increase reliability.This can include:

  • Drilling more boreholes to provide more water in times of scarcity, provided that there is sufficient groundwater available, which is generally more resilient to climatic changes than surface water.
  • Providing more storage such as reservoirs, tanks and rainwater harvesting to act as a buffer and provide water when and where it is needed.
  • Managing aquifer recharge to enhance groundwater supplies and make use of natural storage.
  • Implementing contingency measures by local government and service providers to renew services and behaviours after shock events.
  • Managing sanitation safely through more frequent pit emptying and the safe disposal of faecal waste, particularly before the rainy season, to mitigate the risk of water supplies becoming contaminated during floods. Increasing the capacity of wastewater treatment facilities can reduce the risk of them becoming overwhelmed.

Increased oversight over the quality of implementation, for example, ensuring that drillers and contractors are adequately supervised, that boreholes are sited, drilled and installed in a way that can accommodate fluctuations in the availability of groundwater, and that structures can withstand prevailing conditions.

Ensuring WASH services can be managed and financed sustainably over the long-term, otherwise WASH services and improved hygiene behaviours will fail to provide people with resilience to climate change.

Sensors, produced with AI technology by Similie, are installed to monitor water levels in the water storage tank in Guguleur village, Maubara sub-district, Timor-Leste.
Sensors, produced with AI technology by Similie, are installed to monitor water levels in the water storage tank in Guguleur village, Maubara sub-district, Timor-Leste.
WaterAid/ Vlad Sokhin

How does WaterAid work to build resilience to climate change?

We are not aiming for all WASH infrastructure to be invincible to the impacts of climate change – this is not realistic. Nor are we aiming to focus only on infrastructure and technological solutions as we know that infrastructure cannot withstand very severe climate hazards such as cyclones.

We therefore also focus on strengthening the enabling environment that means WASH services and behaviours can be renewed appropriately after climate shocks. This focus means we work with people to identify the barriers they face around climate-related hazards and vulnerabilities and accessing sustainable and safe WASH.

We also:

  • work with communities and local governments to monitor groundwater and rainwater levels to inform their decision making
  • demonstrate models of climate-resilient WASH delivery
  • support local governments to monitor climate threats and develop and finance climate adaptation or resilience plans
  • empower communities to demand improvements to their WASH services
  • work to understand the issues that affect the long-term sustainability of WASH services and improved behaviours that are often not driven by climate change.

Working in this way can be complicated, uncertain and time-consuming. The context can change rapidly, and it can take time to see results. But it ensures that there are permanent institutions in place to provide ongoing assistance, plans and finances to help services and people bounce back quickly, and to build resilience to slower onset hazards, which increases the true sustainability of WASH services and behaviours. Only when people have access to such services, and practice improved hygiene behaviours, will they be resilient to the effects of climate change.

Vincent Casey is Senior WASH Manager – Water.
Hannah Crichton-Smith is Senior Advisor – System Strengthening.