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Strong WASH systems are climate resilient systems

Published on: 12/08/2020

The same capacities that help us adapt to COVID-19 can be used to face climate change.

People getting water from tanker in Afar, Ethiopia

Afar, Ethiopia. © Petterik Wiggers/Hollandse Hoogte Amsterdam, 2016

The big climate change summit was due to be held in Glasgow, Scotland later this year but then COVID-19 came along, the conference centre was converted into a field hospital and the meeting was postponed. We will have to wait until November 2021 for the global community to make progress and agree on solutions to the climate crisis through that platform. But while we have to wait another year for stronger multi-lateral action, there are, as we discussed in our last Amplify, parallels in tackling COVID-19 and climate change and lessons to learn. All the current pain, stress and extra work in tackling COVID-19 may yet serve us well in adapting to the even bigger threat that is climate change.  

Systems will be at the heart of that, which is why we have been working during lockdown on a think piece on climate change, water resources and water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) systems in the 12 country programmes where IRC and our partner Water For People focus their work. They range from the Andean countries in Latin America to lowland deltas like Bangladesh as well as diverse African countries like Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Malawi.  

This covers a lot of different low- and middle-income contexts and the ways in which climate, water resources and WASH systems link together in those contexts is very different. Outside of the bigger cities, in our African programmes we are typically supporting smaller groundwater-based water supply services. These have relatively low demands compared to other uses (e.g. in irrigated agriculture) and groundwater is typically buffered well to climate fluctuations. In many cases, the impacts of climate change on rainfall and groundwater recharge may be small and even positive.  

There are plenty of other problems already though affecting these kinds of water supply schemes, and water supplies are failing for a wide range of reasons. Increasing demand and challenges in financing and managing services are widespread and present more immediate problems than climate change and agricultural impacts, although we expect threats to get worse. 

Bracing for extreme events

And we are told by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), who produce the definitive reports on these matters, to brace for more extreme events. Floods and droughts can have major impacts in the areas where we work.  

Bangladesh is recognised as one of the most climate-vulnerable countries on the planet. Following the deadly super-cyclone Amphan which hit the country in May, now more than 5 million people are affected by floods, which have damaged more than 73,000 tube wells and 81,000 latrines according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. In Bhola district, where IRC works, 20,000 people are currently affected.  

In the Andean countries, where more supplies are based on springs and surface water sources, the impacts are very different and there are bigger pressures associated with other demands on water resources. In all these contexts, water resources are also at risk from pollution related to poor sanitation, limited wastewater treatment and the growth of polluting industries.  

Resilient systems

As we are now seeing in the time of COVID-19, strong system capabilities (say in testing, public education or product development) enable countries to adapt and tackle problems that they were not exactly planning to be addressing. Pandemics have occurred in the past and there were plenty of warning signs there would be new ones. When one came along, some countries have been able to adapt faster than others, including in WASH (whether promoting handwashing, ensuring better water supplies or minimising costs to vulnerable citizens) and in other COVID-19 prevention measures. Strong systems assist in responding and adapting. Networks, coordination, research, leadership and other kinds of capacities and capabilities are showing their worth.  

The way we will adapt to climate change may be much slower but isn’t entirely different. If the systems that deliver water and sanitation services were strong, we could be reasonably confident in addressing the challenges in many contexts. But in too many places systems are not strong, and we have a huge sustainability challenge already without a changing climate. Many community-managed water supplies, the dominant model in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) for decades, struggle with inadequate support and break down frequently. Utilities serving towns and cities are being rapidly developed but need to develop much stronger capacities to drive up poor service levels. 

In some of the places where we work, change is breathtaking. New apartment and office blocks seemed to pop up from day to day in Addis Ababa where I lived until recently, and whole new suburbs and industrial parks appeared from one month to the next. The bigger signals to WASH service providers and authorities are related to these processes of population and economic growth, urbanisation and industrialisation. Or growth in irrigated agriculture. Not yet climate change. 

No regrets expenditure

The key message that comes through though from our assessments is that the same capacities and skills that enable us to adapt to COVID-19, or deal with the challenges that population growth and industrialisation pose to water and sanitation service providers, are the same ones we will need to adapt to climate change (mitigation requiring rather more drastic changes to the way we eat, live and do business). At least with respect to ensuring the improvement of WASH services.  If we can strengthen WASH systems to deal with today’s sustainability challenges – whether in policies, people, plans, processes or practices of all kinds - facing climate change may not be quite so daunting. 

Underperforming WASH systems are a vulnerability that can and should be addressed relatively quickly to reduce the impacts of climate change in LMICs. It’s a quick win or even a win-win. It’s no regrets expenditure. Everyone depends on WASH services and now the “H” of Hygiene has got the global attention it deserves too.  We can fight COVID-19, fulfil basic human rights and strengthen our ability to cope with climate change and the impacts of global warming at the same time. 

Financing gaps 

While WASH systems should be at the heart of climate adaptation efforts in most of the low- and middle-income contexts where we work, too often they are not. Adaptation efforts are led by environmental agencies, not water or health ones. And the chronic gaps in financing the improvement of WASH services to achieve the SDGs are little understood. Because of those financing gaps in WASH, climate finance will not help much if it's spent on ‘climate extras’  rather than core needs in delivering WASH services. 

A couple of years ago we participated in a tender for a climate resilient WASH project. The challenge that emerged was that the funds were required (due to climate financing rules and their interpretation) to be used for climate resilience actions that were not considered to be the normal business of the water supply sector. So, activities that would be normally required for resilience more generally, like improving the maintenance of rural water supply systems or controlling demands (e.g. leak reduction, metering etc.) were excluded. Activities like improving groundwater mapping and watershed protection were deemed additional and allowable (although they might also be funded through some conventional water supply programmes too).  

This climate finance approach would make sense if the water supply sector was already properly financing the cost components needed to ensure normal resilience like operations and maintenance and especially those big and lumpy capital maintenance expenditures (CapManEx) like a new pump. But it isn’t. One of the best uses of climate finance may be to invest in one of the biggest gaps in the water supply sector: maintenance and especially capital maintenance. 

Put another way, it's going to be very hard to achieve climate resilience, while ignoring a wider resilience agenda. That has to include resilient WASH. In rural water this means maintenance, in urban sanitation the big challenge is emptying and treatment. How these things are done and financed should be central to our climate change response. Focusing on building the systems for these is a key recommendation in our upcoming paper. Another is putting more emphasis in WASH on water resources, better addressing long-term vulnerabilities of sources and minimising the impacts of pollution. 

Join us at WWWeek At Home!

The SIWI World Water Week in Stockholm in August would have been where we talked climate and water seeking to try and follow or influence events in Scotland. Many organisations such as IRC, Water For People and other members of Agenda for Change, as well as the Government of the Netherlands, will be at the alternative WWWeek At Home that now replaces the event. Join us and learn how systems approaches and resilience can ensure that everyone, everywhere has safe water and sanitation, even during the climate crisis  

Note: In November, IRC and Water For People will publish a joint position paper on how we seek to address the threat of climate change, focusing on the contexts where we work, low-and middle income countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia with a focus on ensuring WASH services for everyone, forever. 

This blog was written with inputs from Arjen Naafs (IRC) and Kelly Latham (Water For People) that are gratefully acknowledged, and copy edited by Tettje van Daalen.  

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