Opinion: Why urban climate adaptation programs must refocus on water services

Residents in a low-income community of Madagascar wait in line for water supplies. Photo by: WSUP

Henriqueta Luis lost everything on the night of March 14, 2019. Living in the community of Munhava in the Mozambican city of Beira, her house was ripped apart by Cyclone Idai. One of the worst cyclones ever to hit Africa, her community was almost completely destroyed. Even a year after the disaster, Luis still didn’t have access to clean water. “Sometimes the water that we drink is unclean and this results in diarrhea, vomiting, and cholera,” she told us.

Luis’ story is an extreme version of the one that is affecting millions of people living in informal settlements and slums, particularly within cities. Despite progress being seen in some countries striving to reach Sustainable Development Goal 6 on the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all, the number of city inhabitants lacking safely managed drinking water has increased by more than 50% since 2000.

As climate change gathers pace, weather events like Cyclone Idai are becoming more frequent, and in nearly all of the 25 cities in which Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor works, climate change is affecting the delivery of water and sanitation services. This comes, of course, on top of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has reminded the world of the vital importance of water, sanitation, and hygiene.

Prior to the impacts of climate change and COVID-19, easy access to water was, for many, still far from reality. People still spend hours queueing at standpipes, have to use undignified and unsafe toilets, or suffer from increased public health risks when heavy rains flood poorly built sanitation facilities.

A slum community in Mombasa, Kenya. The country has said the city could see its water supplies under threat from rising sea levels. Photo by: WSUP

Cities, sanitation, and climate change

Climate change and urban population growth are fueling this problem. And cities now face numerous challenges when trying to expand WASH services in the face of a changing climate.

For example, in a water-scarce region, losing up to half of the water supply due to leaking pipes, theft, corruption, or poor billing is an absolute disaster for water services, yet it happens in many cities in Africa. By 2050, it’s thought that climate change will result in 685 million people in cities facing a decline in freshwater availability of at least 10%.

Those cities located in climate hot spots may face much larger reductions in availability. And without a doubt, the poorest will feel the impact more than most. In Lima, Peru, for example, the World Bank forecasts that climate change will result in the city’s utility not being able to meet the population’s water needs.

This will be compounded by poor sanitation, which causes obvious problems in terms of dignity, privacy, and cleanliness but also impacts water quality. In Chennai, a city that nearly ran out of water in 2019, poorly managed wastewater has been identified as one of the key drivers for the crisis. In Lusaka, Zambia, unmanaged sanitation waste is soaking into groundwater and raising public health concerns.

Improving collection and treatment of sanitation waste, particularly in poorer communities where sewers do not exist, is a key step to improving water security for urban residents.

Rising sea levels will also reduce water availability. In coastal cities such as Mombasa, Kenya, rising sea levels may make water shortages more acute, as freshwater aquifers become contaminated with salty water.

Crucially though, the challenge is not simply about securing enough safe water for a city but also about distribution — making sure that water and sanitation services are distributed equally across the population, regardless of wealth.

The challenges posed by climate change in accessing clean water

A lack of water, in addition to lack of funds, makes it difficult for utilities to build out services into communities that are as-yet unserved. But even the communities that are connected to water systems suffer. When droughts hit, poorer communities — by virtue of either their location or lack of a voice — are usually the first to lose water supply, while those living in higher-income areas remain well served.

In addition, increased frequency of tropical storms and cyclones is damaging communal WASH infrastructure, particularly for those living in communities built on floodplains or with no drainage. In the wake of Cyclone Idai, sanitation facilities and water networks in low-lying settlements were completely destroyed. Increasing the resilience of infrastructure is therefore a key challenge.

Looking ahead

Clean water and a safe place to use the toilet have always been some of the most basic requirements for healthy life. But rapidly growing cities across Africa and Asia are ill-prepared for the challenges that climate change will bring. We saw with COVID-19 that policymakers and service providers struggled with crisis management expertise, and the sector as a whole needs to strengthen the long-term planning skills that it requires to be able to cope with the impacts of climate change.

If we are to be able to protect some of the world’s poorest people from the effects of climate change, then ensuring that their right to clean water and safe sanitation is respected must be a top priority for climate adaptation.

While there has been growing recognition this year of the need to urgently reprioritize climate adaptation — as exemplified by the Climate Adaptation Summit in January — more needs to be done.

Cities need immediate assistance to help them understand the extent to which WASH services will be hit by climate change and then plan and implement solutions. Central to an effective climate adaptation response will be strengthening the utilities that have the responsibility, but so often lack the means, to improve equitable and sustainable services across growing urban communities.

Visit the WASH Works series for more coverage on water, sanitation, and hygiene — and importantly, how WASH efforts intersect with other development challenges. You can join the conversation using the hashtag #WASHWorks.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Neil Jeffery

    Neil Jeffery has been chief executive of Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor since early 2014. He has over two decades' experience in successfully leading and growing organizations, social enterprises, and innovative global partnerships. He previously led social enterprises delivering services to "base of the pyramid" consumers in the energy and agricultural sectors and headed a policy institute in Washington working to enhance the impact of U.S. policy in the Andean region.