Water, sanitation and hygiene: the foundation for building resilience in climate-vulnerable communities

Climate change
Image: WaterAid/ DRIK/ Habibul Haque

Climate change is already affecting rainfall and weather patterns, increasing the frequency and severity of floods, droughts, storm surges, temperature extremes, and sea level rises. As a normal part of everyday life, access to clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene can help people cope with these disruptions.

Yet in 2020:

  • 771 million people still did not have access to basic water
  • 1.6 billion did not have basic sanitation
  • 2.3 billion could not access basic hygiene services, of whom 670 million people had no handwashing facilities at all

Around 90% of extreme weather events are related to water – be they through droughts, floods or storms. Natural disasters can often damage or contaminate water sources, affecting the overall availability of water. But as it stands, only 1% of climate finance is invested in providing and protecting water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services for vulnerable communities.

In collaboration with the University of East Anglia's Water Security Research Centre, WaterAid undertook a study to explain how WASH builds people’s resilience to climate change, especially those who are most vulnerable to its effects.

The research found that investing in clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene makes a lasting difference. While these services do not themselves ensure resilience, communities without them will struggle to cope. What's more, better WASH systems can improve a community's wellbeing and climate change resilience. Key outcomes include:

  • Increased household wealth from more secure or diversified employment and livelihoods
  • Better WASH governance and community empowerment through strengthened social capital and safety, particularly for women
  • Improved access to education and training
  • Better community health

This report, which involved input from across WaterAid, in particular from the Programme Support Unit (PSU) of WaterAid UK, includes case studies from a variety of countries, including Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Ghana, India and Nepal, each demonstrating what must be done now to improve WASH services and address current challenges, in order to increase community resilience to climate change.

This report will be a useful resource for WASH and climate specialists, campaigners and decision-makers in the lead up to COP27 as the need for urgent action on climate resilience and WASH increases.

Further reading and resources

Top image: Parul Begum, 35, installed a household rainwater harvesting plant beside her poultry farm in the coastal area of Paikgacha, Bangladesh. September 2018.