Climate change threatens water access for world’s poorest communities

 Unless communities have access to a reliable and safe source of water, their health will suffer. (Image: WaterAid)
Unless communities have access to a reliable and safe source of water, their health will suffer. (Image: WaterAid)

The impact of climate change on people’s water supplies is threatening to put progress on bringing clean water to all back decades unless urgent action is taken to help the world’s poorest communities adjust to changing weather patterns. 

In the crucial battle to reduce current and future global emissions, the situation faced now by those most impacted by climate change has been given little focus or investment.  

WaterAid’s latest report: 'Turn the tide: The state of the world’s water 2021' shows how people are losing access to clean water as longer droughts dry up springs, seawater infiltrates groundwater supplies, and landslides take out water pumps. The report highlights that investing in water systems that provide a reliable supply whatever the weather, is a frontline defence against the impact of climate change. 

Without easy access to clean water, people’s lives are blighted by sickness, poverty and the endless drudgery of collecting water. According to the report, women and girls around the world already collectively already spend an estimated 200 million hours a year – or around 23,000 years – walking to fetch water. 

For the one in ten of the world’s population that do not have clean water close to home, the hours spent collecting water or the time needed to recover from waterborne illnesses caused by dirty water, robs entire communities of an opportunity to build a better future. 

Due to the melting of the Himalayan glaciers and changes to the monsoon season – which is predicted to bring increased rainfall in the future – India is very vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The country’s more than 7,500 square km of coastline is at high risk of sea-level rise related to climate change, with sea levels along the Indian coast having risen by 8.5cm during the past 50 years.

Predictions suggest that 36 million people in India are likely to be living in areas that will experience chronic flooding by 2100. Over the last 65 years, the country has seen a three-fold increase in extreme rain events. In 2018–19, 2,400 Indians lost their lives to extreme weather events such as floods and cyclones; and the India Meteorological Department says these events are increasing in both frequency and intensity. The country will need to adapt to increased water scarcity, droughts, floods, cyclones and other natural disasters.

For water, climate change acts as a threat multiplier, exacerbating problems caused by poor management of water resources, lack of political will, and inadequate investment. With the current climate scenario, it is predicted that water scarcity will displace between 24 million and 700 million people, by 2030.

Currently, only 5% of total global climate funding is spent on helping countries adapt to their changing climate, and that money is not targeted at the communities most vulnerable to climate change. The investment in ensuring that everyone no matter where they live has a reliable and safe water source to help make communities become more resilient to climate change is completely inadequate to the growing crisis – some of the most climate-vulnerable countries only receive $1 per person per year for investment in water.  

The communities featured in this report are living on the frontline of the climate crisis. “Climate change is making it more difficult for vulnerable people to access clean water when they need it and it is a great injustice that the world’s poorest people, who have contributed the least to the crisis, must bear the brunt of its most destructive impacts. Unless communities have access to a reliable and safe source of water, their health will suffer, and they will be burdened with spending more and more time in accessing water, denying them the opportunity to focus instead of creating a better life,” says V K Madhavan, WaterAid India’s Chief Executive. 

WaterAid’s call to action

Climate change is happening now – and it is those who have done the least to contribute to this crisis, who are living on the frontlines of our changing weather. WaterAid is already working across the world to support vulnerable communities to secure access to water, sanitation and hygiene that is fit for the future.

However, co-ordinated national and international action is needed to help support vulnerable communities, who are already struggling to cope and are being deprived of essential water, sanitation and hygiene. Without them, it will be a struggle for these communities to survive and thrive amid the effects of climate change.

Increased focus on adaptation and water risk

We want governments in low-middle income countries, especially those with high levels of water stress combined with low access to WASH resources, to specifically and fully address the threats to water as part of their national climate action plans. WASH resources and services need to be incorporated as key adaptation strategies in national climate plans, including Nationally Determined Contributions, National Action Plans and national budgets.

Provision of WASH to vulnerable communities should be integral to broader climate resilience strategies, to ensure resources and services can withstand climate change. To identify risks to water availability, monitoring structures should be put in place to feed into early warning systems. Governments and international funding bodies must also urgently prioritise investment in adaptation plans, ensuring spending reaches the same level as mitigation spending.

Locally-led adaptation

National climate plans should reflect local and regional climate-resilience planning. Local institutions should be put in place to lead responses to climate and WASH threats at a local level, with the ability to call on wider national resources as needed.

Donors and development agencies should actively engage with marginalised groups and local stakeholders to ensure their voices are included in adaptation decisions that directly impact their livelihoods and lives. Women and girls, who are disproportionately affected by lack of access to WASH, should be central to discussions on climate change and enabled to participate in decision-making around climate policy.

International climate finance

We want all donors to urgently increase adaptation finance and make it accessible to vulnerable communities in the poorest countries. High-income countries need to fulfil their responsibility to provide new and additional climate finance. Donors must prioritise adaptation spending at the same level of mitigation spending, ensuring at least 50% of investment towards adaptation. As part of this, climate finance should be made available for WASH services that underpin climate resilience.

“All of us need to step up now, commit to reductions and recognise the critical role clean water plays in helping communities cope with climate change and recovering quickly from related extreme weather events,” says Madhavan.  

The report can be accessed here


WaterAid is an international not-for-profit organisation, determined to make clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene normal for everyone, everywhere. Since 1986, WaterAid India has successfully implemented water, sanitation and hygiene projects.

Post By: Amita Bhaduri