What is locally led adaptation and why is it important for water, sanitation and hygiene?

6 min read
Gita Roy, 38, inspects the water storage tank at the reverse osmosis plant she manages as the leader of the Golap Dol Women's Group in Tengrakhali village, Kadakati, Khulna Division, Bangladesh, May 2021.
Image: WaterAid/ Drik/ Farzana Hossen

At COP27, many wealthy countries made new commitments to increase funding for adaptation, including locally led adaptation, which is essential for those already experiencing the effects of climate change. Adnan Ibne Abdul Qader sets out how locally led decision making can help ensure vulnerable communities have access to lasting and climate-resilient water, sanitation and hygiene.

The climate crisis is here. The world has already warmed by approximately 1.1°C since the 19th century, and the seven years to 2021 were the warmest on record. This rise in global temperature has exposed communities on every continent to more frequent, intense and destructive climate hazards such as heatwaves, flooding, cyclones and water scarcity.

But the people who are most directly affected by — and disproportionately vulnerable to — the impacts of climate change are often left out of the critical decision-making processes to address them. These processes, for example to design adaptation programmes, tend to be top-down in approach, with central government or powerful funders making the decisions while small organisations are left out of the equation or are unable to access funding.

Locally led decision making, however, promotes participatory democracy and allows local people to be represented and included in, and accountable for, making decisions about public services, planning and development. WaterAid’s participatory approach, for example, ensures an inclusive, bottom-up approach where people from the lowest tier in the decision-making process can participate. Local actors have greater power and resources to be part of the process to develop the climate adaptation measures needed in their own communities. This can lead to more effective and equitable policies and outcomes, and paves the way for climate justice.

The principles of locally led adaptation

The Global Commission on Adaptation (GCA) has developed eight “community first” principles to strengthen locally led decision making for climate change adaptation. As of November 2022, more than 100 organisations – including Agence Francaise de Development, the Climate Vulnerable Forum and the UNFCCC – have endorsed them. The eight principles are to:

  • Devolve decision making to the lowest appropriate level
  • Address structural inequalities faced by women, children, people with disabilities, people who are displaced, Indigenous People and marginalised ethnic groups
  • Provide patient and predictable funding that can be accessed more easily
  • Invest in local capabilities to leave an institutional legacy
  • Build a robust understanding of climate risk and uncertainty
  • Provide flexible programming and learning
  • Ensure transparency and accountability
  • Champion collaborative action and investment
Community members from the village of Satala in Zinder, Niger, inspect documents related to a community-led project to restore the village's natural ponds.
Community members from the village of Satala in Zinder, Niger, inspect documents related to a community-led project to restore the village's natural ponds. Image: WaterAid/ Basile Ouedraogo

Why is locally led adaptation important for water, sanitation and hygiene?

Access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) not only brings positive changes to vulnerable communities but also helps them cope with the effects of climate change. Often, traditional WASH services cannot be used during or after climate shocks. Droughts can cause wells to dry up, meaning there is no clean water for communities to drink, wash or clean. Flooding can cause pit latrines to overflow, spreading human waste into the environment

Time and again, we see that existing technologies not only need to be made climate resilient, but must also complement a community's needs and wants, and adhere to its efforts towards long-term sustainability.

In these contexts, technologies such as pond sand filters are now being retrofitted with solar power to improve their design and functionality, alongside operation and maintenance training to ensure initiatives are locally led and will survive into the future.

However, strengthening the resilience of water, sanitation and hygiene systems is not only about building infrastructure that will withstand cyclones or tidal surges; it's about local community leadership and ownership.

It is key, therefore, that local people have the opportunity to drive the introduction of, or improvements to, climate-resilient WASH services in communities. But ensuring that the introduction of such adaptation measures is locally led is easier said than done. A range of obstacles, such as social and political barriers, as well as de-centralising finance and power to the local level, are complex and challenging to overcome. However, some approaches are slowly changing the status quo.

Empowering women through water

Over the years, WaterAid has implemented community-focused practices in line with the principles of locally led adaptation. One example, recognised by the GCA, is the “Golap Mohila Dal” and its solution to the drinking water crisis in coastal Bangladesh.

Led by Gita Roy, the Golap Mohila Dal – or Rose Women’s Group – has been successfully running a reverse osmosis plant in the coastal belt of Bangladesh since 2019. Gita wanted to improve the provision of drinking water in her home village after growing tired of walking for hours every day to find potable water. She sought assistance from WaterAid and Severn Trent Water, which were establishing three reverse osmosis plants and other water and sanitation facilities in her community. After being trained under the Water Entrepreneurship for Women’s Empowerment (WE-WE) approach, Gita and a committee of women took the initiative to run and maintain one of the reverse osmosis plants, and developed business plans to sell the water to the local community at an affordable price. As one of the success stories of the WE-WE approach, Golap Mohila Dal not only ensures the long-term sustainability of the technology but has also empowered the committee’s women to become role models and business leaders in their community.

Gita Roy (left) and members of the Golap Dol women's group discuss their business plan for the Maricchap reverse osmosis plant, funded by Severn Trent, in Tengrakhali village, Khulna, Bangladesh, 2021.
Gita Roy (left) and members of the Golap Dol women's group discuss their business plan for the Maricchap reverse osmosis plant, funded by Severn Trent, in Tengrakhali village, Khulna, Bangladesh, 2021. Image: WaterAid/ Drik/Farzana Hossen

Lessons in locally led adaptation

It is important to bring about fundamental changes to the way climate adaptation plans and programmes are delivered. Locally led adaption can be a game changer, and not only for the communities or organisations leading the change. It means not thinking of vulnerable communities as mere targets or “beneficiaries” in need of support from the top, but seeing them as changemakers in their own right who know best what needs to be done. Those who wish to support them must listen to them first.

Harnessing the power of knowledge can ensure locally led adaptation is effective. We can no longer work in silos or underuse scientific data. Adaptation practitioners must have access to the latest scientific information about climate risks in each geographic area and, at the same time, they must record practical learnings as they implement adaptation plans.

The final priority is to design investment plans for adaptation measures that will last over the long term, rather than focusing solely on short-term projects. This requires a longer-term programmatic and innovative approach from financiers. A good example of such an optimal design approach is the Resilient Water Accelerator; a coalition formed to boost climate finance to build the climate resilience of 50 million people through clean and reliable water resources and services. However, even if limited-time funding is provided to projects, there must be an emphasis on social-inclusion and market-wide approaches so that communities can continue to adapt to the effects of climate change after the project ends.

Top image: Gita Roy inspects the water storage tank at the reverse osmosis plant she manages in Tengrakhali village, Khulna, Bangladesh.