Climate Change and WASH: Conversation with a Researcher

Editors Note: In this post, Laura MacDonald, Knowledge and Research Coordinator at the Center for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology (CAWST) provides an abridged summary of a conversation with a researcher about climate change and WASH. To dive into the technical details on this fascinating topic, please refer to Kristen Downs’ guest blog post: Ask a Researcher: Considering WASH in the context of climate change. This post originally appeared on the CAWST website, to view the original post please click here.

2016 has not been lacking in extreme events – the Fort McMurray wildfires, Winter Storm Jonas, Hurricane Matthew, record-setting average global temperatures – and it’s assumed that such events will be occurring with increasing frequency. Such extreme events are highly covered in the news and grab the public’s attention, often resuming the ongoing discussion around climate change and its potential impact on our daily lives. For water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) practitioners, consideration of the potential impacts extends to vulnerable populations in developing countries and their access to safe water and sanitation. Given the inherent links between climate change and WASH, the increasing awareness of climate change and its impacts has led to a documented increase in requests to CAWST from WASH practitioners for more information on the subject. Specifically, CAWST clients are seeing a decrease in the reliability of water sources, leading to more people relying on surface water with a high level of microbiological and, increasingly, chemical contamination.

If you feel overwhelmed with the complexities of climate change, don’t worry – it’s normal.

Here are some basics you should know
  • Weather, climate and climate change are different.
  • Climate change isn’t just about increased temperatures; it’s also about: (1) precipitation,  (2) sea level rise, and (3) extreme events.
  • Climate change will hit hardest in places where the population faces existing vulnerabilities, be they economic, social or environmental, and exacerbate these challenges.
  • WASH programs need to ensure they are ready to adapt to the local effects of climate. Because the effects can be so localized, it’s critical that local WASH practitioners observe climate-related impacts first-hand and take steps to integrate best practices into their programs to increase climate resilience.

What strategies, technologies and approaches can we use to address the WASH challenges posed by climate change?

When considering possible strategies and technologies to address the WASH challenges posed by climate change, it’s helpful to think about supply and demand. For example, from a supply side, as our clients have seen, an increase in temperature could reduce the availability and quality of surface water. On the demand side, higher temperatures could increase household demand for water to use for cooling, bathing, and watering crops. This is just one of many potential changes that can affect both the demand and supply side and will make it difficult to plan, implement, evaluate and support appropriate interventions. As WASH practitioners, however, we are equipped with a range of strategies and technologies that could be used to improve resilience. Strategies include protecting water sources to prevent water quality degradation and diversifying raw water supplies to address reduced water availability and quality. On the technology side, boreholes and rainwater collection could support diversification of supplies. These technologies, in addition to household water treatment, improved pit latrines and flood-proofed wells, could help protect against and address degradation of water quality.

What are the potential health impacts of climate change?

The health impacts of climate change will be both direct and indirect, and they are likely to be increasing and mostly negative. Specific to WASH, increasing water insecurity, degradation of water quality, and changes in the transmission of water-borne and water-washed infectious diseases are of particular concern. Researchers are working to better understand how climate change affects infectious diseases in different contexts. For example, some are studying the relationship between temperature and diarrhea as well as rainfall and diarrhea.

The hard truth is that climate change will make it more difficult to deliver sustainable WASH services. An uncertain question is when and in what situations climate change will go from exacerbating existing challenges to changing the game entirely, at which point the WASH sector would have to change paradigms and practices, not just put in additional effort and invest in best practices.

Encouraging recommendations

Ever-positive and insightful, though, Kristen wouldn’t leave us disheartened. Instead, she closed with the following recommendations:

  •  Increase the resilience of WASH systems and services.
  •  Increase the resilience of vulnerable populations.
  •  Contribute to gathering more information about the current and potential future impacts of climate change at the local level.

To learn more about these recommendations and dive into the details of what Kristen presented, you can read her technical blog post here.