Climate change puts already stretched water, sanitation and hygiene services under growing threat. For hundreds of millions of people, a reliable clean water supply and decent toilets could be the difference between coping and not coping with our changing climate.

Around the world, 703 million people do not have clean water close to home – and the climate crisis is making this worse. 

Climate change makes weather patterns more unpredictable and increases the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events and natural disasters, such as droughts, floods and cyclones.

More than 90% of ‘natural’ disasters are water-related

including droughts, floods and aridification.

4 billion people experience extreme water stress

for at least part of the year.

There could be a 40% shortfall in freshwater by 2030

due to climate change and growing demand.

In times of drought, rivers and wells run dry. Crops and livestock wither and die, depriving people of income and food. 

Floods and cyclones can bring seawater inland, contaminating freshwater sources. Toilet facilities can become inundated, increasing the risk of diseases like cholera. 

All this means people are forced to travel further to find a source of clean water or a working toilet, or resort to even less safe sources of drinking water.  The likelihood of other health impacts is also increased. In Bangladesh, for example, rising seas contribute towards heightened salinity in groundwater, exacerbating health issues like high blood pressure and heart disease among the coastal communities who rely on groundwater as a source of clean water.

An older man stands in the middle of a ruined building beside a pond.
Abdur Rajjak Molla, 60, stands among the ruins of his home in Satkhira, Bangladesh, after it was destroyed by Cyclone Amphan. February 2021.
Image: WaterAid/ Drik/ Suman Paul
We lost everything that night. The walls and roof of our house were broken. There was no safe water to drink, no food in hand, no sanitation facility and no place to stay.
Abdur Rajjak Molla, Bangladesh

Climate change also threatens to reverse progress in improving access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), and push more people into poverty

The more global warming we lock in, the more people will feel its effects, and the worse those will be. And it is often those who have done the least to contribute to climate change who carry the greatest burden. People in the poorest countries who live on the brink of the climate crisis are least able to prepare and protect themselves and their surroundings. Women and girls are disproportionately affected, as they are responsible for household chores, water collection and caring for family members. 

Foundations of climate resilience

Clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene can improve community wellbeing and climate resilience. This report includes case studies from various countries to demonstrate what must be done now to improve access to WASH and address climate challenges.

Mayaman Malle, 55, waters onions crops in the women's market garden in Tigama, Bla, Segou Region, Mali, March 2022.
Image: WaterAid/ People’s Postcode Lottery/ Basile Ouedraogo

Our approach

Building climate-resilient WASH services and systems is more important than ever.

Global warming makes the future uncertain, so we work with local partners and communities to build reliable and sustainable services and systems that ensure people are more resilient and help them be as prepared as possible for the effects of climate change.

Our projects often rely on groundwater, which is generally safer and more reliable than surface water, even considering climate threats. Where it's not possible to use groundwater – because it is difficult to access or contaminated – we use rainwater harvesting. Surface water is used if treating the water can be managed and financed sustainably. For sanitation, we promote the implementation of the full sanitation chain, including methods for safely capturing, containing, emptying, transporting, treating and reusing or disposing of waste.

Our work to build climate resilience involves:

  • Ensuring solutions are contextually relevant by assessing climate and non-climate hazards and vulnerabilities. We do this in collaboration with communities, local governments and service providers.
  • Empowering individuals to participate in developing solutions that address these hazards and vulnerabilities. This ensures that solutions meet everyone’s needs, especially women and girls, and people with disabilities.
  • Supporting the establishment of climate, water resource and environmental risk monitoring, using data to inform early warning systems and ongoing risk-based planning.  
  • Identifying appropriate infrastructure, service management and service financing options. This ensures that services can either withstand shock events and long-term stresses, or can be restored quickly after them.
  • Supporting communities, service providers and local governments to plan contingency measures to ensure WASH services continue before, during and after shock events.
  • Building extra capacity and redundancy into service provision so it can cope with shocks and long-term stresses. For example, having back up boreholes and greater water storage capacity to ensure continuous water supplies during droughts, and extra wastewater or waste handling capacity to deal with flood risks.
  • Supporting the formulation of demand management strategies that ensure measures are in place to limit or ban certain water uses in times of scarcity and that prioritise domestic water access, particularly for women and girls.
  • Promoting healthy catchments and ecosystems by working with those responsible for managing and regulating land use, protecting catchments and managing water resources. This is to ensure the risks of flooding and water resource scarcity are mitigated. 

We also work on a global level to share our expertise with governments and the private sector and make sure clean water, decent sanitation and good hygiene are at the heart of plans to adapt to climate change. And we campaign for an increase in dedicated climate financing for these services, so that everyone, everywhere can adapt and build resilience to climate change and realise their rights to water and sanitation, whatever the future holds. 

Latest resources and expert opinion

Top image: Manaisoa, 29, walks back to her village with her youngest child on her back and a 20-litre jerrycan of water on her head in Anosy Region, Madagascar, June 2022.

Second image: Mayaman Malle, 55, waters onions crops in the women's market garden in Tigama, Bla, Segou Region, Mali, March 2022.

Page last updated: May 2024