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Changing the climate discourse and walking the talk

Published on: 17/08/2021

Hurricane Eta damage in Honduras, 2020. Photo: Water For People

IRC and Water For People reframe the climate discussions from a WASH systems perspective.

This blog was co-authored by IRC's Arjen Naafs and John Butterworth, Kelly Latham and Jody Carman of Water For People.
Photo caption: Hurricane Eta damage in Honduras, 2020. Copyright: Water For People

As we have watched the climate change and change again over the past several years, IRC and Water For People realise there will be no resolve to this seemingly merciless challenge if we don’t change ourselves. To that end, we are on the verge of announcing an alliance to drive exponential progress in the delivery of WASH services over the coming decade. We will call this shared vision – and strategy to achieve it – Destination 2030, (D30). One of our ambitious D30 goals is to reframe the climate discourse from a WASH systems perspective. There is simply not enough attention paid to the WASH/climate connection. But, rest assured, we are paying attention.

The relevance of WASH

IRC and Water For People’s mission is to ensure that everyone has access to safe, reliable, and sustainable water and sanitation services and practices safe hygiene behaviours. As a sector we address them together under the clever acronym of WASH. The health, dignity, and livelihoods of all of us depend on these services.  The COVID-19 pandemic provides a stark reminder that the lack of access to these services, like a shared water tap or toilet, can expose us to disease, but also how handwashing can help protect us by providing a barrier to infections.

We are seeing the impact of climate change on WASH services in the countries where IRC and Water For People work and recognise an increasing need to help service providers and authorities manage the risks associated with less predictable and more extreme weather patterns and events. This paper (disponsible en enspañol), examines the links between climate change, Water Resources Management [WRM], and WASH services and how they affect our mission, while also illustrating how we implement our impact model and the need to integrate climate action in our work and more broadly, as a sector.

The paper is based on the current global context and reflects our collective experience and learning from 12 low- and middle-income countries where we work in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Three emerging themes

Three themes emerged when analysing the ways climate change threatens water and sanitation services in the places we currently work:  increased pollution from flashier rain events, too little water from increased temperatures and less frequent or predictable rainfall, and too much water damaging infrastructure from floods, storms, and increasing sea levels. We are facing these threats now. We've seen drops in service levels from floods after Cyclone Idai in Malawi, water shortages in drought-prone areas in Ethiopia, and increased pollution to shallow springs in the hills of Honduras where flashy rains are common. Using a risk matrix, revealed the ways we are currently integrating our work with climate action and where we need to urgently shift to address the immediate threats of climate change.

Considering the realities we see in our work, the global context of climate change, and our WASH systems perspective; the following key insights emerged in the paper.

WASH system strengthening is climate action. WASH has not been adequately addressed in international and national decision-making on climate action. The WASH sector can deliver short and long-term wins. Safe and reliable WASH services rapidly improve the resilience of communities and households. Strengthening the systems that deliver WASH services helps combat climate change and other key threats, such as population growth and urbanization. Access to high-quality WASH services is a human right, and strong WASH systems address the urgent needs of vulnerable and excluded population groups.

WASH must be a core component of climate financing and adaptation strategies. Climate adaptation policies, strategies, and financing must prioritise the reform and strengthening of WASH systems. There are major funding gaps in the WASH sector, and we are lagging far behind the progress needed to achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 - access to universal WASH services. In low- and middle-income countries with weak WASH systems, it is difficult to “add on” climate activities. Financing that encourages groundwater recharge, for example, will be ineffective when pumps are broken, and pipes leak due to lack of maintenance. An approach that integrates WASH in climate financing would be more efficient in filling the gaps in core systems and optimise returns.

We cannot face the challenge of climate change alone. The climate crisis demands collective action and aligned commitments across organisations, sectors, and nations and requires us to extend beyond the WASH sector and understand the goals, capacities, and opportunities for partnerships with the broader water and conservation sectors. WASH organisations can deliver improved services that directly contribute to broader efforts to protect and better manage water resources, while also contributing to climate change mitigation and adaptation. The systems that deliver WASH services can also benefit greatly from the expertise, innovation, data, and financing in the WRM and climate change domains.

Climate finance should be a core source of finance for strengthening WASH systems and must build on WASH sector efforts. Understanding the current limits of sector financing is an important starting point. Available climate funds are small compared to the finance gaps in the WASH sector, but there is potential for growth.

Water For People and IRC will walk the talk. As organisations, we will reduce our own carbon footprint, promote appropriate mitigation strategies related to new technologies, champion the role of WASH systems in climate adaptation, and recognise that water-related climate action will strengthen the WASH system. We cannot achieve universality or sustainability of services without more strategic protection efforts. Implementing nature-based solutions in source recharge areas and aligning WASH decision-making to broader catchment and aquifer management strategies can result in more cost-effective service delivery that does not rely so heavily on expensive treatment and water quality testing.

Join us in pushing WASH up the climate agenda globally. Let’s work together.

We invite you to explore these findings in more detail and learn more about Destination 2030 during World Water Week 2021.

Download the working paper

Acknowledgments: Vera van der Grift and Dechan Dalrymple for the leg work, and Tettje van Daalen for copy-editing.
 

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