At COP 26, what about water?
By Patrick Moriarty // 02 November 2021
Finally, the human population is alarmed by the catastrophic weather shifts caused by global warming. A recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report reinforced the idea that it presents a threat to the planet, with the United Nations calling the document a “code red for humanity.” But while world leaders focus on reducing carbon emissions, a crucial element is mostly missing from the conversation.
With delegates convening at the U.N. Climate Change Conference — or COP 26 — in Glasgow this month, decreasing carbon emissions will take up a large portion of the agenda. However, to address climate change effectively, we can’t focus exclusively on carbon; we need to integrate water management into our actions, too. Water vapor is the most abundant greenhouse gas, and a warmer atmosphere can hold more of it, leading to further increases in temperature.
Following a wave of global development events, WASH professionals ask where the mentions of WASH were.
As global warming intensifies, we can expect more average rainfall. While this might be a benefit in some areas, we will also continue to see even more extreme events such as storms and floods due in part to a faster hydrological cycle.
Due to climate change, three main problems will arise with water. First, polluted water will increase due to runoff from more intense rain. Second, some regions will have too little water because of increased temperatures and reduced rainfall. And third, other places will have too much water, with increased flooding, high tides, and storms damaging infrastructure. Millions of people’s livelihoods are projected to be detrimentally affected worldwide.
An uncomfortable truth
We must face the uncomfortable truth that climate change is driven by people in high-income nations, but people in the developing world are paying the biggest price for our inaction.
Many low-income countries continue to face mass disruptions — such as food shortages from droughts or population displacement from floods — due to human-caused natural disasters. Yet they are the least able to adapt to such dramatic shifts, with weak infrastructure and inconsistent WASH systems. Inadequate facilities and vulnerable systems will continue to collapse as more floods, hurricanes, and other natural disasters occur with greater frequency while the climate continues to change.
The perils of climate change are now showing up in wealthier nations, where people are finally realizing that the climate crisis has reached a critical point. In February, a winter storm sent the state of Texas in the United States into a deep freeze, causing pipes to burst and disrupting the water supply for millions. In July, Germans saw a natural disaster unlike any other there in decades, with floods causing fatalities, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without power, and destroying buildings.
If climate change is everyone's challenge, we need to recognize that a collective responsibility in tackling it must include providing resilient and safe water and sanitation.
These experiences are new to many in the global north, but people in the global south have struggled with such dangers for decades. In high-income nations with strong infrastructure, systems can start functioning again soon after a weather catastrophe — something that is impossible in countries with very weak systems that are already barely functioning. The necessities that are easily taken for granted in high-income nations just aren’t available in many parts of the world.
It is completely unjust that 3 in 10 people globally lack access to safely managed water at home. Sanitation and hygiene are also important, as demonstrated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the necessity of frequent hand-washing and social distancing during the health crisis, millions of people must still resort to using shared latrines and communal water pumps, often without a ready supply of soap or sanitizer.
From mitigation to adaptation
So far, the focus has been on climate change mitigation and reducing carbon emissions. While these are important, they only address part of the issue. Adaptation, or managing the impact of the climate change that is already occurring, needs to be taken more seriously. The deficient systems that exist in low-income nations could easily disintegrate with the next flood or monsoon.
Access to high-quality WASH services is a human right, and as we face rapid urbanization and population growth globally, strong and reliable systems that deliver functioning services will help communities build resilience to the ravages of climate change and prevent the spread of infectious diseases. Currently, 6 in 10 people live without safely managed sanitation. Governments need to focus on strengthening systems so that services are sustainable for future generations.
There is no excuse for this inequity. If climate change is everyone's challenge, we need to recognize that a collective responsibility in tackling it must include providing resilient and safe water and sanitation for the majority of the people on the planet who do not have it.
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.
About the author
Patrick Moriarty is the CEO at IRC WASH, a think and do tank that collaborates with national and regional governments, NGOs, and entrepreneurs to find and implement sustainable water, sanitation, and hygiene systems in Africa, Central America, and India.