With a large population living in poverty and fragile topography, South Asia region is going to be the most affected by climate change. In 2018, Lancet’s countdown on health and climate change estimated that the number of people exposed to heat waves in India increased by 40 million in five years from 2012 to 2016. In past few years, western India, southern and central Pakistan and north-western region of Bangladesh have faced frequent droughts. Severe heat waves and prolonged droughts diminish the quality and availability of water, whether it is surface water or groundwater. Water stress makes women and girls wait long hours in queues near water points or walk many hours a day in search of drinking water. Stress on water resources can push communities to go back to open defecation. It can thus reverse the gains made by South Asian countries that have implemented several sanitation programmes to become open defecation free. Climate change also has a strong bearing on the commitments made for water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) under targets 6.1 and 6.2 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The issue is not only the scarcity of water but also about the quality which gets marred by climate change. The coastal zones of Bangladesh, Pakistan and India are extremely vulnerable to climate change-induced salt water intrusion impacting salinity of rivers and groundwater. Droughts and high temperatures lead to algal blooms and concentration of chemical pollutants due to diminished runoff and flows to rivers and aquifers, thus increasing treatment costs. Extreme weather events such as floods, droughts, landslides and cyclones, over a long period of time, also affect the physical integrity of water systems, river flows and surface water sources impacting the overall availability of clean water
Interruption of WASH services has huge consequences on the health, nutrition, education and livelihoods of the populations caught in vulnerable situations as well as on eradicating poverty and inequality among them. At the same time, access to safe drinking water and sanitation is the foremost resilience measure for climate change adaptation in the long run as well as an emergency response to get life back on track after an extreme weather event or a disaster occurrence. Although WASH is an important reactive strategy for disaster response and a proactive measure for the reduction of disaster risks, it has not got due attention as a key adaptation strategy to climate change.
Populations should have resilient basic services of water and sanitation in place as essential building blocks for recovery from loss to livelihoods due to climate change. Looking at the evidences from Bangladesh, Nepal, India and Pakistan, latest policy brief of WaterAid titled ‘Climate change and resilient WASH in South Asia’ outlines threats to sustainable WASH services in more detail and the opportunities to make transformative change. In all these countries, in addition to the integration of resilient WASH within climate change instruments and strategies, a revision of the WASH sector plans is required for the development of climate-informed policies and plans at the provincial, district and state levels. Given the roles of local and state governments on the subjects of water, sanitation, and hygiene, it is also important that adaptation plans are formulated with local-level participation. At the same time, financial outlays and planning are required at the national and sub-national levels for adaptation.
Poor and marginal communities in South Asia are affected most by climate change even though they are not responsible for causing climate change. In this context, the role of international climate finance from developed countries becomes important for supporting resilient development trajectories in these countries. In flood-prone and water-stressed areas, various innovations have happened in sanitation technologies, such as low-flush septic systems, ecosan latrines, and high-volume septic tanks. These have been recognised as potentially resilient to climate change. It is important to further build knowledge and research on the resilience of these technologies in specific geographies. For big WASH infrastructure—such as underground sewerage, storm water systems, and water supply pipelines—it is important to screen the infrastructure for disaster risk and climate variability, especially in areas prone to disasters. This infrastructure must be constructed with local collaboration and in a way that it is accessible to all.
In the federal structure of Pakistan, India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, there are strong ministries at the central level for climate change; drinking water and sanitation; etc. However, a great deal of responsibility and power rests with the state, provincial or local governments for planning and implementation of WASH schemes and programmes as well as for climate change adaptation plans at the local level. It is important to have a good balance, coordination and clarity on roles for top-down policy-making and allocation of budgets to be aligned with local-level planning and inputs. Sub-national and Panchayat-level development plans could be an entry point for decentralised, climate-resilient WASH panning. SDG 6 on clean water and sanitation and SDG 13 on climate action are intractably linked because climate change is mediated through a change in the water cycle, and stopping climate change is important to achieve SDG 6. Strengthening sustainable WASH services helps in adapting to climate change. The Paris Agreement on climate change and the commitments to SDGs made in 2015 by the world leaders require further planning in each country to build the resilience of development pathways, including water and sanitation.Vanita Suneja is Regional Advocacy Manager at WaterAid.