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Published on: 15/05/2014

Two recent reports, one on climate change and the other on access to water and sanitation worldwide and another on climate change, cover issues that are interlinked. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability published at the end of March cited water and sanitation as a ‘most effective vulnerability reduction measure’.  An investment in water and sanitation should be a useful no-regrets investment.  Better access to safe water, latrines and improved hygiene behaviours is needed anyway, and will also pay dividends in helping the most vulnerable people adapt to climate change.

As an organisation working to extend access to water and sanitation services to everyone and forever and with more than 40 years working in lower and middle income countries, IRC welcomes the recognition of these basic human needs and rights. 

Where access to water and sanitation services is low, people are put at risk. They are less able to manage when other problems come along. With poorer health, less time available and less income than would be the case if water and sanitation services were good, people are less able to cope with the negative impacts of climate change such as poor crop yields due to a shorter rainy season, the loss of livestock during a drought, or the damage in a flood to crops and infrastructure. Providing water and sanitation services for everyone builds resilience, and should be key part of the climate change adaptation effort.

But how is the water and sanitation sector performing at providing these critical services? And are we ready for the additional challenges of climate change? A very positive story is often told: the Millennium Development Goals have been a great force in extending access to improved water sources and latrines. The latest official global monitoring figures, just released in another new report from the Joint Monitoring Programme, show much progress has been made. Since 1990, over 2 billion people gained access to improved sources of drinking water, and a similar number (just under 2 billion) gained access to improved sanitation.

On the other hand, and looking behind the headline indicators, there are some real concerns about performance in both water and sanitation in low and middle-income countries. Newly installed infrastructure is breaking down at an alarming rate and services are often sub-standard. A detailed study we did in 3 districts in Ghana seems fairly typical. More infrastructure exists due to recent development efforts, and a lot of it is working. But not optimally. That study found that 35% of wells and boreholes with handpumps were non-functional. But when other performance criteria like reliability, accessibility, quantity and quality are factored in, only 19% of point sources performed adequately. A recent review of studies on whether ‘improved’ water sources actually deliver safe water is damning on the water quality related risks to health that people run. The supplies we are developing are ‘not consistently safe’ and the global burden of disease (e.g. in Global Burden of Disease 2010) may be greatly underestimated as a result.

Yearly investments in improved water sources are massive, but we are not always investing wisely. Driven by the need to extend services we’ve been making big investments in new infrastructure.  But we haven’t been investing enough in the recurrent costs of keeping water flowing, such as maintenance services or the extension of spare part supply chains. We think that, in low income settings, the costs of support to rural water supply service providers, for example, are around 1-3 USD per person per year to sustain a basic level of service, but actual expenditures are more likely to be an order of magnitude less (e.g. 0.1-0.2 USD per person per year in Ghana).

So the water and sanitation sector has a lot to improve. More investments, including those from climate change adaption funds, may help if they support innovation and change in the sector and plug some of the financing gaps. But there is also a real risk that funds won’t be put to good use where, for example, money routed through new funding channels is spent in ways that repeat past mistakes. For example, well-meaning community adaptation projects often include new investments in rural water infrastructure. But we’ve learned that communities often can’t manage such systems on their own, and that long term support (from professional service providers or local government) is needed as well.

At IRC we’re convinced that there are solutions to these challenges.  That good, low cost basic water and sanitation services can be provided; and, that providing these services do make communities more resilient.  At the heart of these solutions is putting as much time, effort and money into strengthening local institutions as into building new hardware: in building the capacity (particularly of local governments) to provide the long-term recurrent support that leads to investments in infrastructure leading to services that last.  In this need to strengthen local institutions (as in many other areas) the agendas of climate change adaptation and water and sanitation service delivery overlap, and activities can be mutually supportive.



At IRC we have strong opinions and we value honest and frank discussion, so you won't be surprised to hear that not all the opinions on this site represent our official policy.

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