Climate change and rural sanitation
We need to move fast to mainstream climate change into planning for sanitation and hygiene access. In a challenging landscape, where do we start?
Societies have already created an increase in global average temperature of approximately 1.0°C since pre-industrial times, resulting in measurable increases in the frequency, duration, and intensity of climate phenomena such as extreme heat waves and precipitation. Continued heating will further exacerbate these events. Climate change impacts disproportionately affect already disadvantaged and marginalised groups. There is a real risk that progress made in improving rural sanitation access and coverage will slow, or even reverse.
Climate change is an added complexity in an already challenging landscape – it exacerbates these challenges and has cascading effects on health and livelihoods.
The global sanitation sector has taken initial steps to incorporate responses to climate change into rural sanitation programming and services. However, much of the discussion has focused on technological improvements.
There is limited actionable guidance on how the rural sanitation and hygiene sector can make systemic changes through planning and implementing project delivery, enabling demand, changing behaviour, addressing social norms, monitoring and evaluation, and more at the local level.
Furthermore, the voices of vulnerable people, households, and communities who are at the forefront of experiencing climate change impacts on sanitation are largely absent in existing discussions.
Barriers to climate action for the rural sanitation sector have included:
- A perception that climate change is a longer-term, less immediate problem
- Data on climate change is confusing and intimidating, making it difficult to know where to start.
- There is a lack of evidence, and some uncertainty about how climate change will affect rural sanitation going forward.
- Climate change can be seen as a problem for environmental scientists, other ministries and organisations.
- It can be seen as a problem that’s too big to deal with at a local or programme level.
- It requires inter-sectoral collaboration and knowledge sharing.
The Sanitation Learning Hub have pulled together key recommendations for sanitation and hygiene practitioners wondering where to start in dealing with the complex challenge of climate change and rural sanitation. Essential concepts are summarised in this Key Issues Guide, with more detail available in ‘Rural Sanitation and Climate Change: Putting Ideas Into Practice’.
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How does climate change affect sanitation?
Climate change impacts sanitation via numerous, interlinking pathways. Climate change creates or worsens climate hazards.
A climate hazard is the potential occurrence of a climate-related event, trend, or physical impact that may cause loss of life, injury, or other health impacts, as well as damage and loss to property, infrastructure, livelihoods, service provision, ecosystems, and environmental resources.
The social context and local activities shape how these hazards impact physical access to sanitation infrastructure, access to local resources and markets, and livelihoods needed to support safe sanitation.
Social contexts shape and differentiate impacts from climate hazards on people’s access to sanitation and hygiene Psychological factors contribute to determining whether people practise or change behaviours to proactively respond to climate change impacts.
Local activities worsen or lessen the risks from climate hazards. For example, climate-change-driven increases in intensity of rainfall can combine with human-driven deforestation to create flash floods and landslides. Or impacts of a decrease in rainfall can be partially offset by water demand management practices.
Climate change can impact physical access to sanitation, access to local resources and markets, and affect livelihoods too. Jeremy Kohlitz goes into more detail in the video below.
Jeremy Kohlitz describes some indirect and direct impacts of climate change on sanitation
Who is affected most by climate hazards and their impact on sanitation?
The impacts of climate change, and the burden of responding to them, are felt differently across society depending on the social context. Negative impacts are disproportionately felt by already vulnerable people, which exacerbates existing inequalities.
In the video below, Ruhil Iyer explains how different groups experience climate hazards differently.
A complex array of social factors can combine to create inequalities that cause some people to suffer from climate hazards more than others. The Sanitation Learning Hub, in its previous iteration as the CLTS Knowledge Hub, identifies five ‘clusters of disadvantage’ that affect the ability of people to construct, access, use, or maintain a latrine include:
- Poverty and lack of physical or economic related assets;
- Physical or mental health related challenges;
- Limited social capital and challenges from beliefs, practices, skills, knowledge, and attitudes;
- Geographical challenges and vulnerabilities to risk; and
- Marginalisation, discrimination, and powerlessness.
These same clusters shape how people experience climate impacts on sanitation in three broad ways:
- The extent to which different people are exposed to climate hazards (for example, marginalised people forced to live on hillsides prone to landslides).
- The degree of sensitivity that different people have to climate hazards (for example, poor people using low-quality toilets that are more likely to contaminate groundwater sources during heavy rainfall than wealthier people using higher-quality toilets).
- Influence on people’s levels of resilience or capacity to resist, cope, adapt, transform, or recover from climate impacts (for example, different levels of access to climate information used to anticipate and plan for impacts; different levels of power to decide how household money is spent to implement adaptations)
Seven key recommendations for addressing climate change and sanitation
1. Recognise that climate change can be integrated in sanitation programming
Programming and services for climate change and sanitation do not have to start from scratch or be a new separate effort. Think about climate impacts within ongoing sanitation programming efforts (for example, flooded paths to toilets, damage to latrine infrastructure). Mobilise established channels and add to activities already taking place (ensuring frequent operation and maintenance practices, build capacity on retrofitting toilets, for example).
2. Trust in practitioners’ experiences with local engagement
Many recommendations for addressing climate change, such as identifying vulnerable people, are already accepted as good development and WASH practices. Recognise that practitioners regularly engage with ideas of risk such as slippage, and how to ensure sustainable and equitable sanitation and hygiene outcomes.
Therefore, practitioners are already engaging with climate related concerns, albeit framed differently. Building on existing strengths and ways of working will help practitioners to tackle climate concerns more confidently.
3. Lift up local knowledge and experiences
Local perceptions of risk will inform how different people understand climate impacts, frame this problem, respond to climate hazards, and prioritise their needs. Understand these perceptions and develop strong relationships with local people, institutions, and stakeholders.
Interventions are more likely inclusive and equitable if they reflect the priorities and desires of local people, and if they have ownership over planning and implementation.
4. Utilise opportunities to engage with practitioners in similar circumstances
Peer-to-peer learning amongst practitioners engaged in similar concerns (within and across sectors) is a major source of practical knowledge. For instance, practitioners already involved in programming for climate change in the water, livelihood, agriculture sectors can be a great source of experience and learning.
This process can also help practitioners understand various past, present and future challenges and establish working relationships for more systematic efforts. Utilise existing networks, and create new ones, at various levels both formally and informally to collaborate, share and learn about different ideas that can be modified to suit local contexts.
5. Understand the differentiation of local impacts and responses
Climate hazards impact people and communities in different ways. Their responses vary due to factors like their geographical location, seasonality, type of home and latrine, level of income, gender, age, capacity for mobility, and more. Make efforts to understand differential impacts and design interventions to support different needs.
6. Build local relationships and engage stakeholders regionally and across the sector
A collaborative approach will draw on a variety of strengths to bolster adaptation efforts and sustain outcomes. Building trust and strong relationships will help stakeholders support each other while also ensuring that community priorities and needs are considered and represented in discussions and during decision making.
7. Encourage and plan for regular reflection and learning processes
Practitioners, community members and other stakeholders should regularly engage in reflection and assessment of ongoing challenges with climate impacts on toilet use and access and ways to adapt.
This will build on existing efforts and consider various trade-offs during decision making (for example, a durable but expensive technology which may not be as easy to repair pitted against a latrine made of easily accessible materials that is more vulnerable to hazards). This can help create a culture of flexibility to help minimize climate risks.