How climate change is jeopardising access to basic sanitation facilities for 2.5 billion people

While developed world countries are largely responsible for the behaviours that bring about climate change, the effects can be felt most severely in the developing world

What’s the issue?

748 million people worldwide lack access to safe drinking water, while 2.5 billion do not have access to basic sanitation facilities [1].  Climate change’s primary impact is on the water cycle, making the provision of safe drinking water and adequate facilities to the world’s poor an even more challenging task.

Access to clean Water and adequate Sanitation and Hygiene facilities (WASH) is a major priority for the international development community.  Improvements were targeted in the United Nation’s Millennium Goals (MDGs) and subsequently in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but still in 2015 a child died every minute of every day due to a water related disease [2].  The developing world countries that face the majority of these issues are also those that are least able to cope with natural disasters and changes in water levels (whether it be flood or drought).  They are also often those already affected by climate change, and so likely to see WASH issues compound as the effects of climate change become more pronounced.

There are many NGOs whose activities are explicitly dedicated to WASH programmes (e.g. WaterAid [3]), while others will integrate it into programmes that primarily focus on a different functional area but recognise the importance of this fundamental issue (e.g. education programmes will often contain training on basic hygiene techniques and school infrastructure projects will often chose to concentrate on providing adequate toilet facilities).  The design of these organisations’ programmes, how they chose to allocate precious resources and where they concentrate their advocacy campaigning is all very much affected by climate change.

How, specifically, does climate change present more challenges to WASH programmes?

  • Droughts caused by reduced rainfall have the obvious effect of reducing the availability of water and limiting the flow rate of rivers. This can both limit clean drinking water, while increasing the concentration of unwanted (often harmful) waste products in a river system, which can increase the risk of disease spreading
  • Flooding caused by the opposite effect of increased rainfall can cause overflow of wells and latrines, which can lead to a mixing of clean and dirty water, rapidly increasing the speed and likelihood of the proliferation of waterborne diseases
  • Heatwaves and extreme temperature fluctuations can affect the natural flow of water in lakes and rivers, as well as improving the conditions for diseases to multiply in stagnant water sources.
  • Rising sea levels can also cause flooding of normally safe sources of water, injecting unwanted saline and reducing quality [4]

What can WaterAid do to continue to combat this additional threat from climate change in trying to achieve its mission?

WaterAid’s primary mission isn’t to tackle climate change, however, there are a number of things the organisation can do from advocacy, fundraising and programming perspectives that could help them with their key goals.

The first thing that I think WaterAid can do is join the global advocacy movement addressing the drivers of climate change.  This will potentially involve a whole range of new partnerships with NGOs, governments, funders etc. whose individual areas of focus did not originally overlap but now do because of the added climate change dimension to their respective work.

WaterAid and all major NGOs rely heavily on external funding to be able to do their work.  Climate change is a relatively new sector and focus area for funders and international donors – WaterAid could look at altering or adding to their fundraising strategy in order to tap into funds earmarked for “climate change” projects.

Finally, WaterAid could look at the actual design of their programmes, to ensure that they will be sustainable [5] and resilient in a future where the effects of climate change may, unfortunately in the short term at least, be more prevalent.



  1. UNICEF, “WASH Climate Resilient Development Strategic Framework”, 2014,
  2. “The importance of water and sanitation”, 2015,
  3. WaterAid mission, accessed 2016,
  4. UNICEF, “WASH Climate Resilient Development Strategic Framework”, 2014,
  5. WaterAid and Climate Change – Briefing note, 2015,,d.amc&cad=rja

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Student comments on How climate change is jeopardising access to basic sanitation facilities for 2.5 billion people

  1. AS – thanks for sharing. I agree that the inequity between developed countries and developing countries with regard to climate change (the former causes most of it, causing the latter to suffer most of the consequences, at least in the short term) is troubling. Your suggestions all seem effective – another one might revolve around bringing this issue to global committees tasked with coordinating global government strategies around climate change. Perhaps this could result in increased funding from foreign governments?

  2. AS – Fantastic post. It was terrifying to read that a child dies every minute of every day due to a water related disease. Although water and sanitation are essential to everyday life, I have taken both completely for granted. Sadly, I would imagine that is not uncommon across people in developed countries. While I believe advocacy, fundraising and programming are crucial steps for NGOs going forward, I would also recommend NGOs like WaterAid strengthen their external communication of these issues to people beyond fundraising. For instance, (RED) gained great momentum in its fight against AIDS by leveraging celebrities and pop culture to expand and promote their message. Is there an opportunity for WaterAid to do something similar?

  3. Great post AS — After reading your post, I was shocked to learn the statistic that “one child died every minute due to a water-related disease.” I think our society takes for granted how easy we access to basic amenities, like clean water, and wish there was more focus on improving living conditions for those in developing countries. One additional recommendation I thought could be impactful would be for WaterAid or similar NGOs to developed meaningful owned media content, hopefully creating earned media, that could help drive the advocacy and fundraising efforts to the masses. Additionally, are there additional partnerships the NGOs could leverage to raise awareness for their causes– for example, Smile.Amazon?

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