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Why hygiene matters in the climate change discourse

Published on: 14/10/2019

Hygiene is both the first and the last defence against diseases due to climate change.

Is the humble handwashing station a key defence to deal with changing climate? This model stands in nearly every restaurant and many kitchens in Uganda and remains one of the best low cost, affordable and water efficient options to improve hygiene (Photo: Arjen Naafs)

Is the humble handwashing station a key defence to deal with changing climate? This model stands in nearly every restaurant and many kitchens in Uganda and remains one of the best low cost, affordable and water efficient options to improve hygiene (Photo: Arjen Naafs)

15th of October is Global Handwashing Day, which is a moment to consider the importance of good hygiene behaviour and supporting systems to improve health, dignity and wellbeing. Globally, it is estimated that nearly half the world has access to a basic handwashing facility with soap and water, yet we know that this doesn’t mean hands get washed at critical times all the time. 2.7 billion people (40%) simply do not even have access to a handwashing facility with huge implications for spreading diseases. (JMP, 2017)

With the attention to changing climates, there are some interesting considerations why hygiene should become more of a concern to us all.  IRC is working with partners on using the systems approach to improve WASH (listen to the podcast) and hygiene is a crucial piece of the puzzle. The recent UN Water policy brief on Water and Climate Change, stresses that changes in climate are most felt through water – and therefore, influencing hygiene:

  1. If water becomes scarce, proper hygiene becomes more and more difficult to maintain, from handwashing, through to overall hygiene and menstrual hygiene management. In order to face this challenge, we should work towards water saving handwashing tools – such as the handwashing basin common in East Africa (see photo above), or the tippy tap and further improved systems linked to piped water supply. 
  2. If there is flooding, outbreak of diseases such as cholera are a huge challenge. Emergencies that cause flooding or displacement are particularly associated with health outbreaks, and handwashing’s potential to prevent disease can be even more critical when health services are disrupted.
  3. Hotter days, more rain, and higher humidity can increase infectious diseases, from Ebola through to the flu (which is Bill Gates’ biggest fear) and as some dare to say, even ancient diseases (the bubonic plague to smallpox coming out of melting Siberian permafrost). Good hygiene is arguably both the first defence against spreading and the last defence before it reaches a host. Ensuring that people around the world have proper hygiene habits can save us all.

The hygiene sector uses the F-diagram to describe and explain the link between pooh (faeces) and the new host. The diagram below shows which areas are influenced by climate change.

Climate change and the F- diagram (adapted from Water1st.org)

Diagram: Climate change and the F- diagram (adapted from Water1st.org)

An interesting overlap between hygiene promotion and climate awareness is that both involve behaviour change and the sectors could share expertise and approaches on this.

As UN’s 2019 Champion of the Earth award winner Prof. Katharine Hayhoe says, the first thing to do about climate change is to talk about it. With this blog we want to contribute to the conversation on the unique role of good hygiene in preventing diseases linked to changes in climate, temperatures and water availability. Let’s use this Global Handwashing Day to keep the discussion going!

This blog is co-authored by Eline Bakker and Arjen Naafs

Disclaimer

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.