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Published on: 26/03/2014

It has been said that water will be the 'primary medium' through which early climate change impacts will be felt by people, ecosystems and economies. For WASH services, it's a double whammy that will have serious impacts on both the supply and demand sides of WASH services.

Why should the WASH sector be central in climate change adaptation?


  • climate change threatens achievements already made in WASH service provision and sustainability, and is changing the context (on both supply and demand sides) in which we need to extend water and sanitation services.
  • climate change impacts on people and regions differently: poor people, including children and women, tend to suffer first and hardest. Addressing vulnerability is critical to poverty reduction.
  • successful climate change adaptation can only be achieved through cross-sector approaches, and with many impacts likely to be felt through water, the water and sanitation sector is particularly important.

IRCs take on climate change adaptation

Doing better: Improving access to water and sanitation

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 everyone had good water and sanitation services, 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 should therefore be an essential part of the climate change adaptation effort. It helps to build resilience.

Climate change adaptation might potentially be a driver of some new innovation in the way services are provided.

Although it may sometimes be blamed, climate change is not the reason for the current low water and sanitation coverage in part of the world – rather it is the governance, capacity, management and financing issues that hamper development of new services and cause existing systems to fall into disrepair – but it is important to recognise that climate change is and will be an additional stress in this system. The main implication is that for people to cope with climate change, the water and sanitation sector needs to be successful in improving access and ultimately providing universal services. The water and sanitation sector needs to solve its problems and do its core business better. Climate change adaptation funding could help to an extent since this ought to be available for water and sanitation investments (and there is a funding gap). But only if the water and sanitation sector can convince that it can make wise use of such financing and effectively turn money spent into services delivered and reduced vulnerability. Climate change adaptation might also potentially be a driver of some new innovation in the way services are provided.

Doing some things differently: adapting the way we do water and sanitation

Although it is not the only source of uncertainty about the future in which the water and sanitation sector will operate (other sources include population changes, economic growth and political stability for example) it seems clear that climate change is going to have some severe impacts on the water and sanitation sector. A second implication of climate change is that the water and sanitation sector will need to do some things differently.

Some impacts are more certain than others and the adaptation measures more obvious. Infrastructure in flood-prone areas needs to be better protected. Households and communities that depend upon groundwater need to be encouraged to deepen wells during dry periods and droughts, and to improve well protection and lifting capacity to ensure they can cope with greater variations and lower groundwater levels. Unsafe water sources could provide more safe supplies if protection of wells were improved or household water treatment solutions more widely available and used.

Unsafe water sources could provide more safe supplies if protection of wells were improved or household water treatment solutions more widely available and used.

Additional infrastructure will be needed to augment supplies in small towns and urban areas and demand management measures adopted to make water resources go further. Planning and service delivery agencies need to think about the potential for climate change to further spur urbanization and their ability to cope in proving water and removing waste to cope with additional population growth. Communities need to be protected from rising sea-levels and associated flooding and sea-water intrusion. Organisations need to be able to respond to emergencies to provide safe water and sanitation facilities during times of crisis.

While some ‘no regrets’ expenditure can be identified (things that make sense to do even if climate change risks do not materialize as we expect) a major challenge is that given the uncertainty of climate change and its impacts, we can’t be sure exactly what justifies investment and in which locations. For this reason, building adaptive capacity within the water and sanitation sector is important. Many things will have to be decided as we go along, based upon good monitoring, research on building climate resilience, and the engagement of stakeholders – especially impacted communities – in WASH decision-making and planning.

Supporting mainstreaming

We think more attention to climate change needs to be mainstreamed into the work of the WASH sector. IRC have worked with WSSCC and other partners to galvanise stakeholders and raise the profile of the climate change issue within the WASH sector. We are also supporting the sector to develop practical approaches for the challenge. For example, in Nigeria we developed a series of training modules for UNICEF so that the National Water Resources Institute in Kaduna will offer new training in mainstreaming of climate change adaption in the WASH sector.

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