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90% of climate disasters are water related

Published on: 27/01/2021

Building resilience is not a "nice to have"- it is essential, says Ban Ki Moon.

But how can you be resilient, if you don’t have safe drinking water? How can you be resilient to the pandemic without handwashing? Tragically, like COVID, climate impact is felt first, and most severely by the poorest communities that do not have the capacity to prepare for the unpredictable and severe changes. Resilience and dignity start with safe drinking water, decent toilets and good hygiene.

It's time for adaptation

The Netherlands hosted the first ever Climate Adaptation Summit (CAS) earlier this week, bringing global leaders (virtually) together to discuss climate adaptation. Climate change forces us to adapt our environments, cultures and systems to changes that are already happening. This focus on adaptation marks a tectonic shift in global thinking that led Rt. Hon. Alok Sharma MP, UK’s lead for COP26 to emphasise “adapting should not be seen as the poor cousin of mitigation”.

"90% of the climate disasters are water related – either too much, too little, or too dirty", states H.E. Cora van Nieuwenhuizen, Minister of Infrastructure and Water Management. “We must put water at the centre of adaptation”, said Special Envoy International Water Affairs of the Netherlands, Henk Ovink during the water session, “we need better knowledge, dedicated finance and planning for adaptation”.

In response, sessions included for example the Global Centre for Adaptation launching the knowledge exchange Water Action Track and the Netherlands presenting the visually arresting Cultural mirror on Water. My personal favourites were the waterchange makers with stories of change, ranging from WASH and micro-basin protection in Honduras (by Water For People), panel winner Masungi Georeserve with a youth-led movement in the Philippines, and the public favourite, the Mothers parliament in Bangladesh. This latter involves IRC’s partner DORP and resonates with our upcoming launch of the #VoicesForWater campaign and the Watershed legacy story.

90% of the climate disasters are water related – either too much, too little, or too dirty.

Making a case for water, sanitation and hygiene

As the pandemic has shown us, Water Sanitation and Hygiene [WASH] is the foundation for resilience. But the conundrum is that climate change is not the biggest concern. In low- and middle-income country contexts, the key threats and risks to WASH services - and the water resources upon which those services depend - are related to population and economic growth, urbanisation, industrialisation and the expansion of irrigated agriculture. This uncomfortable truth has to be said or we’ll fail when it comes to solutions.

The good news is that we believe the same skills and resources that will allow governments, service providers and other WASH actors to face climate change, are largely the same ones that are needed now to tackle challenges such as the pandemic and others like sustainability of rural water supplies. Put simply, it’s all about building stronger systems. Building capacity in water and sanitation, attracting the finance needed and ensuring strong performance of WASH services should also be our first steps in being prepared to tackle the threats related to climate change.

Finance was fortunately a key theme at the CAS and heads of state and global leaders committed significant amounts. A whole array of funds have become available such as (acronym warning!): the DFCD, LOCaL, CRPP, and the Climate Bridge Fund. However, as Kulthoum Omari Motsumi from the Africa Adaptation Initiative pointed out, there are barriers in making finance available for local adaptations such as complicated accreditation processes, the challenge to provide a climate rationale (lack of data, analysis and science) and the conditions to provide co-finance. Accessibility to such funds will need to be made simpler.

In 24 hours, the CAS succeeded in covering many other topics including circular economies, nature-based solutions and agriculture. Throughout this, the call for building back better after the pandemic, the need for collaboration and the need to unlock finance was omnipresent. The case that resilience, prosperity and health only come with decent toilets, safe drinking water and good hygiene didn’t make it to the main sessions and in hindsight, indicates that the WASH sector is not yet well positioned and needs to do more to make its case. That was a big disappointment. IRC will work with our partners to do our part to address this.

A cynic would say that this summit was just business as usual. After all, it is not the first time that there were loads of commitments, promises and calls for action. However, we would say that the broad consensus for adaptation, the shift in financing structures, the push for local led solutions and youth leadership, may just make this Summit trigger and drive some systematic change. Or as the brilliant host (and IRC champion) Ikenna Azuike concluded, “a summit is only as good as its legacy”.

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