Climate Change and “Water, Sanitation and Hygiene” Services

Published on Thursday 24 March 2022

By Florent Lavie-Derande, Program Officer – WASH in Fragile and Conflict-affected Contexts, and Alexandre Alix, Program Officer – Water and Climate, French Water Partnership.

The climate transformations currently taking place threaten both water supply and sanitation services, as well as the sustainability of water resources. WASH services must therefore adapt to the challenges of global warming and the resulting natural and climate-related disasters.

It is now an indisputable fact that human activities have a major, catastrophic impact on planet Earth. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre recorded over 30 million[1] displaced persons in 2020 due to natural disasters, in comparison to 9 million displaced by armed conflict.

The impact of climate change on a given population depends on that population’s vulnerability and exposure to risk. This of course means that people living in developing countries, who already suffer from inadequate access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services, are automatically affected to a greater extent by climate change. It is worth emphasizing, however, that the majority of greenhouse gases are generated by the so-called most-developed countries; economically fragile countries undoubtedly share less responsibility and need external assistance to cope with climate challenges.

Global warming has disrupted the water cycle, causing increasingly violent and frequent weather events and rising sea levels. Due to higher temperatures and the ensuing droughts and storms, water is now a central issue; climate factors must therefore be taken into account when planning assistance for populations affected by armed conflict and/or natural disasters. According to the World Health Organization, climate change is projected to claim up to 250,000 additional lives every year from 2030 onwards as a result of malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress.

The consequences of climate change pose many challenges to the management of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene projects, which mainly focus on fighting waterborne diseases.

First, access to good quality drinking water is deteriorating due to saltwater intrusion in coastal areas (a consequence of rising sea and ocean levels) and also due to the contamination of water sources by surface water runoff as a result of recurrent rainstorms and poor wastewater management.

Second, the quantity of water available is decreasing as prolonged droughts and increasing water abstraction to meet human, agricultural and industrial needs leave water tables partially depleted. Water shortages are already driving population displacements, with people moving towards urban centres, but they also heighten the spread of waterborne diseases (diarrhea, cholera, dysentery, hepatitis, etc.). Moreover, overcrowding and informal housing have given rise to a new set of problems in urban areas, where there is a higher risk of disease outbreaks due to inadequate access to drinking water and sanitation. The same obstacles hindering access in densely populated areas are also observed in camps for refugees and displaced persons, especially during protracted crises.

Rising temperatures and the destruction of ecosystems also result in zoonotic diseases, heightening the risk of epidemics like Ebola, dengue fever or malaria, which require appropriate, integrated (WASH and health) responses.

WASH responses to current crises (conflicts and natural disasters) are already constrained by difficult access and insufficient funding to address the needs of growing numbers of people faced with longer-term crises. Climate change places these interventions under additional pressure, affecting both their quality and sustainability.

Overall, the humanitarian sector and public policies must take climate-related risks into consideration so as to mitigate their impact on populations at risk. Climate change adaptation and mitigation measures must therefore be incorporated into intervention strategies, including the development of intersectoral synergies, since water, sanitation and hygiene are all linked to the overall water cycle.

[1]  Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC). “Global Internal Displacement Database” Data (2020). https://www.internal-displacement.org/database/displacement-data

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