How would you spend $100B? Ensuring water security in a changing climate

A woman in a flooded district in Khulna, Bangladesh, after Cyclone Aila hit the country in 2009, affecting nearly 4 million people. A report released by WaterAid shows that projects focusing on water security in Bangladesh only account for less than half of the overall climate finance funds. Photo by: GMB Akash / Panos / WaterAid

One hundred billion dollars is a lot of money by any standard. If the global community owned a plane that dropped out $200 every minute of the day, it would be 950 years before the money completely ran out. Or together we could do something a bit more useful, which is what WaterAid hopes for the $100 billion per year that has been promised by the world’s wealthiest countries to fund action on climate change.

Climate change is a water issue. In fact, we could even call it “water change.” Droughts, floods, cyclones and salty groundwater are all water-related challenges that are projected to get much worse in a changing climate. Logically, the money assigned to help poor countries adapt to climate change should be directed toward ensuring universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene and reducing water threats, thereby enhancing overall water security.

But a new report by WaterAid shows that the money is not being spent on water security. In fact, in-depth research in Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Zambia shows that projects focusing on improving water security only account for a small proportion of overall climate finance spending. In low-lying Bangladesh, for example, less than half of climate funds are spent on addressing water security, and it’s considerably less in Ethiopia and Zambia, where just 11 percent and 3 percent are allocated, respectively.

Climate change, water and poverty are intimately linked

During a recent trip to Bangladesh, I saw firsthand how deeply vulnerable communities are to climatic threats such as cyclones and floods, and how important access to clean water, good sanitation and hygiene — including hand-washing with soap — is.

Take, for example, the story of 10-year-old Shusmita Mandal. In May 2009, Cyclone Aila hit the southwest coastal region of Bangladesh, killing more than 300 people and displacing thousands more. Shusmita was living with her father in the district of Koira. The cyclone came just as they were trying to piece their lives back together after Cyclone Sidr 18 months earlier. When Aila hit, Shusmita and her father had to flee their home and take shelter on a river embankment.

Life on the embankment was tough. Like millions of others across the world, Shusmita and her father were forced to rely on unsafe water sources. On top of that, they didn’t have anywhere to go to the toilet. Shusmita had to walk for more than a kilometer to find safe drinking water because the wells near their new home were contaminated.

For me, Shusmita’s story is a forceful reminder that the people who have done little to contribute to climate change are those hit hardest by its devastating impact. It also illustrates why the global climate funds that are being mobilized to help communities adapt to climate change must be directed toward enhancing water security — which includes access to WASH.

Climate finance presents a huge opportunity for development

There are three main costs associated with climate change: the cost of reducing the amount of greenhouse gases being pumped into the atmosphere (mitigation costs), the cost of helping people cope with the climatic changes already occurring (adaptation costs), and a third, more insidious cost, is the suffering endured by poor people with little capacity to adapt as the climate continues to change.

If we are to see the drastic reductions in poverty and suffering that are necessary to meet the United Nations’ new proposed sustainable development goals, the global community must invest heavily in both mitigation and adaptation activities.

More than 100 countries have promised to mobilize $100 billion every year from 2020 onward in a mix of adaptation and mitigation finance. This significant transfer of wealth from north to south presents an opportunity to work toward our development goals in a way that is sustainable and that can withstand an uncertain climate future.

Development is about making people healthier, wealthier, better educated and more water secure. This is what the SDGs are aiming for. As people gain access to basic services and move away from poverty, their capacity to cope with climate change will increase. In other words, climate change adaptation and development go hand in hand.

International adaptation finance must focus on ensuring we meet the SDGs in a way that can stand up to climate change. This means that people’s most basic development needs — such as access to sustainable water, sanitation and hygiene services — must be met before money is spent on narrowly defined adaptation projects such as drought-resilient seeds or raising existing sea walls.

Room for improvement

But the obvious opportunity to use global climate funds for climate-compatible development and enhance water security is not being used fully. WaterAid’s new research identifies several factors blocking progress.

Many countries still do not have a clear policy framework for water security. It is often unclear who is responsible for ensuring water is included in adaptation plans and processes. Different sectors, including health, education and WASH, do not work closely enough together to ensure a coordinated approach to adapting to climate change. Finally, and most critically, countries lack the skills and experience to develop large-scale water security projects that would be eligible for climate funding.

On an international level, climate funds and donors also need to play their part, by supporting and strengthening where national systems are weak. Countries often report confusion about the types of projects that qualify for climate finance. Global funds could do better in explaining how climate finance can be used to help countries meet their development objectives.

Funds can go one step further by making sure governments design their own plans to help communities adapt to climate change. Funds should also prioritize the countries whose ability to meet the SDGs will be most hampered by climate change.

An opportunity not to be missed

Many of the countries where WaterAid works are not very good at managing their water. Often they have plenty of it, for instance as in Bangladesh, but it is unevenly distributed, increasingly dirty and there are no clear rules about how water is shared. Without equitable and effective water resources management, 10-year-old Shusmita and millions like her will continue to be water-insecure and highly vulnerable to climate change.

The money that has been promised to help people cope with climate change presents a unique opportunity for global leaders to extend access to WASH, to improve the way that water resources are managed, and to ensure that those with water services keep them forever — no matter what happens to the climate.

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About the author

  • Louise Whiting

    Louise is a senior policy analyst for WaterAid. She focuses on policy analysis for water security, including WASH sector engagement in water resources management. She also works on climate change policy development and climate finance tracking at national and global levels. Louise was previously with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific where she worked on a range of water governance, irrigation and food security issues. Prior to this, Louise advised the Minister for Water in Australia throughout the Murray-Darling Basin reform period.