For hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest people, climate change is putting already stretched water resources and services under growing threat. A reliable clean water supply and decent toilets could be the difference between coping and not coping with the effects of our changing climate.
Why climate change?
As the world rallies against the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of people in developing communities are already struggling with a public health catastrophe. Without clean water, people are constantly at risk from waterborne diseases such as cholera. Climate change is exacerbating this threat.
785 million people still do not have clean water close to home. Droughts, floods, salt water contamination, poor service management, weak governance and environmental degradation all contribute to this denial of their basic human right. Climate change is accelerating and amplifying these factors, increasing unpredictability of weather patterns and making extreme weather events and natural disasters more frequent and intense.
Sewage systems are flooded with increasing frequency, contaminating water sources and the local environment. Severe droughts force people to resort to even less safe sources of drinking water. And the likelihood of other health impacts is increased – for example in Bangladesh, where rising seas raise groundwater salinity, contributing to high blood pressure and heart disease among coastal communities.
It is those who have done least to contribute to man-made global warming who are carrying the greatest burden of climate change. People in the poorest countries are living on the brink of the climate crisis, and the poorest communities among them are worst affected, being least able to prepare and protect themselves and their environments. Without durable, climate-resilient water and sanitation systems, people struggle to cope.
But well-managed water systems can protect access to reliable water supplies. Decent sanitation systems can resist floods. And, as we are witnessing during the COVID-19 pandemic, hygiene behaviours such as handwashing are a crucial first line of defence against the spread of disease. Our response to today’s global health crisis must also address the effects of the climate emergency, and prepare us for the crises of tomorrow, with sustainable water, sanitation and hygiene services that are fit for the future.
Climate change is a serious risk to everyone, everywhere having clean water, decent sanitation and good hygiene (WASH). It threatens to reverse progress in improving access to these essentials, and push more people into extreme poverty. 2019 was the hottest year on record, and the past decade was the warmest yet. The more global warming we lock in, the more people will feel its effects, and the worse those will be.
Services must be urgently extended and strengthened in the face of the severe and unpredictable impacts of a warming world. Yet very little investment and attention has been given to the effects of climate change on clean water and decent sanitation services. Less than 2% of climate finance goes to domestic water and sanitation adaptation. In some of the countries most vulnerable to climate change, as little as $0.20 per person is spent each year on making water services climate resilient.
By 2040, the UN estimates that one in four children will be living in areas of extremely high water stress, threatening their health and futures. Now is the time to act. Scroll down to learn what we are doing.
Pushing for effective action on climate change at the UN
The people who have contributed least to emissions are feeling the worst impacts of lack of action on climate change. Are they getting the climate finance they need to adapt to a warming world? Jonathan Farr sets out the case for redressing the balance.
Building resilient water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services and strong systems is more important than ever. We establish high-quality services that last. We share our expertise with governments and the private sector to change even more lives. We work with governments to make sure water is at the heart of climate adaptation and development plans. And we are campaigning for a tenfold increase in climate financing for water and sanitation, and dedicated funding to enable the poorest countries to adapt and build their resilience to climate change.
Global warming makes the future uncertain, so we build reliable systems that make sense whether or not communities are hit by more extreme weather or natural disasters. This makes communities more resilient, helping them be as prepared as possible for the effects of climate change.
Our projects generally rely on groundwater, which is often safer and more reliable than surface water, even considering climate threats. At a local level we take practical steps to guard against climate impacts such as flooding and drought, including:
- Raising water points and latrines above flood levels
- Using rainwater harvesting and storage
- Introducing technology such as reverse osmosis filtering systems to clean contaminated water
The solutions are about more than high-quality infrastructure and new technology. We work together with communities to identify the kinds of problems they face now and might face in the future. We help them get involved in finding solutions, and in planning and managing their services. And we adapt the technologies we use to suit each context and withstand extreme weather events.
We partner with local governments and businesses to build and strengthen the systems that ensure resilient services. We work with them to reduce the risks to people’s health and livelihoods caused by natural disasters such as droughts and floods. Together, we find ways for communities to manage their water resources sustainably, so they have the water they need not just for drinking, but for cooking, cleaning, washing and making a living.
We build interventions at regional and town level that require strengthening the water sector, sharing expertise, integrating with other sectors such as planning and health, and a flexible approach to service users’ differing needs. We foster the skills and innovation required, including strengthening ability to rebuild services after extreme weather events.
We work with governments, the private sector and communities to put clean water, decent sanitation and good hygiene at the heart of action to mitigate the effects of climate change. We want to make sure national development and climate adaptation plans ensure water as a vital natural resource, so that everyone, everywhere will have these basic human rights, whatever the future holds.
Climate and WASH statistics
- In 2016, just 5% of total climate spending (PDF) – US$23 billion – was spent on adaptation globally, compared to almost $300 billion on renewable energy projects.
- Less than a third of all climate finance (PDF) reaches the least developed countries that need it most.
- Half of all countries receive less than £4 per person per year in climate finance for both climate mitigation and adaptation.
- Half of countries where more than 1 in 10 people do not have water close to home get less than 77p per person per year in climate finance for water service adaptation.
- The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that, even if the average global temperature rise is kept to 2°C, poorer countries will need $70 billion to $100 billion (PDF) every year until 2050 to help them adapt.
- Limiting global warming to 1.5°C, compared to 2°C, may up to halve the proportion (PDF) of the population exposed to increased water stress caused by climate change, although this varies between regions.
- In the past decade, more than 90% of major disasters have been caused by floods, storms, heatwaves, droughts and other weather-related events that are expected to become more frequent and intense because of climate change.
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