For hundreds of millions of people living in the greatest poverty, 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.

703 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.

More than 90% of ‘natural’ disasters are water-related, including drought and aridification.

2.4 billion people worldwide live in water-stressed countries.

Investing in water in low and middle income countries could deliver $500 billion a year in economic benefits.

Without clean water, people are constantly at risk from waterborne diseases such as cholera. Climate change is exacerbating this threat. Sewage systems are flooded more often, 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. In Bangladesh, for example, 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 carry the greatest burden of climate change. People in the poorest countries are living on the brink of the climate crisis, and the communities among them living with the greatest poverty 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.

Often responsible for household chores, water collection and caring for family members, women and girls are disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change. But they are also key to the solutions. From fixing taps and pumps, to working with community groups on water monitoring or management, women and girls are leading the response to the climate crisis. That's why it is time for women to have a seat at the table and play an equal role in making decisions to help their communities adapt to climate change.

Well-managed water systems can protect access to reliable water supplies. Decent sanitation systems can resist floods. And, as we witnessed 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. 2020 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. Just 1% of the billions pledged globally to fight climate change goes to protecting and providing clean water for communities vulnerable to its effects. In some of the countries most vulnerable, as little as US$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. 

Turn the tide: the state of the world's water 2021

With our climate changing at an alarming rate, it is becoming harder and harder for the world’s poorest people to get clean water; one in ten people currently lack access to this basic resource. In this report, we look at the tangible impact on the daily lives of those

Abdul, a community member, going with his grandchild to collect safe water from PSF plant. Kathamari, Shyamnagar, Satkhira, Bangladesh. September 2018.
Image: WaterAid/ DRIK/ Habibul Haque

Our approach

Building resilient 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 an 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 effects 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.


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