We can't settle for a watered-down treaty

Posted 10 Dec 2015 by Miriam Denis Le Seve

COP21 in Paris is a precious chance for governments to reach an agreement that could protect the world’s most vulnerable people from the effects of climate change. Miriam Denis Le Seve, WaterAid’s Policy Officer for Climate Change, discusses the priority water, sanitation and hygiene must be given in any global climate treaty this December.

A raft of square brackets litter the new 29-page draft text for the global climate agreement announced on yesterday morning – more than 300, in fact. They indicate areas of disagreement to be finalised by ministers at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) before tomorrow’s looming deadline.

Much hope is pinned on these 29 pages – hope that we will avoid catastrophic climate change with a commitment to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5°C, and hope that the most vulnerable countries will be given adequate support to cope with the adverse impacts occurring now and which will worsen in future.

Not once, however, does the agreement include the word ‘water’. This is despite the expectation that most climate impacts will be felt through the water cycle – through floods, droughts and rising sea levels.

The impacts of climate change on water security and WASH infrastructure

Alongside a host of other challenges facing water resources, such as increasing demand, industrial pollution and unsustainable farming, climate change threatens to make WaterAid’s work towards universal access to clean water and sanitation a whole lot harder.

Rainfall is already highly unpredictable in many of the countries where we work and droughts and floods are not uncommon. Climate change threatens to make rainfall even more unpredictable, bringing longer droughts, more intense wet periods and an increase in the frequency of extreme weather events. These changes impact on the water available for basic human needs, as well as on harvest, food security, health and livelihoods.

#12DaysOfCOP infographic

At the same time, in disaster-prone areas, homes, schools, health centres and WASH infrastructure are at risk of destruction during extreme weather events.

What does adaptation look like in the WASH sector

Adaptation is a key component of the new climate text, and a strong international agreement that includes financing and capacity building for adaptation could help get developing countries the resources they need to cope with the impacts of climate change.

WASH must be acknowledged as a critical adaptation tool because it builds community resilience to climate change. For example, WASH interventions such as drilling boreholes that are well sited, designed and managed improve access to groundwater sources, which are more resilient to changes in climate than are other sources of water. In turn, people who are healthy thanks to improved WASH are more able to earn an income, which strengthens their ability to cope with the economic impacts of an uncertain climate.

Where WASH infrastructure is at threat from damage during extreme weather events, adaptation cannot simply be about making pumps and latrines stronger or elevated from the ground. It also has to be about ensuring the systems and finances are in place to renew infrastructure and services when they are destroyed, which requires attention to the management, public finance and support arrangements in place within permanent government institutions.

Financing adaptation

Last week 11 countries collectively pledged $248 million to the Least Developed Countries Fund to support adaptation to climate change. It’s a start, but not enough. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that, even if the average global temperature rise is kept to 2°C, poorer countries will need US$70 billion to US$100 billion every year until 2050 to help them adapt.

As well as the need for more climate funds towards adaptation, WaterAid is arguing that these funds should go towards improving access to essential services – such as WASH. Recent research by WaterAid claims that projects focussing on improving water security only account for a small proportion of existing climate finance.

WaterAid will use this research to help developing country governments increase their capacity to spend climate funds for projects that improve access to WASH and enhance water security. In addition, with new research on climate change adaptation in low-income urban communities, WaterAid will continue to produce evidence of the policy frameworks and investments needed to improve the resilience of poor urban residents.

On top of this, WaterAid has more than 30 years’ experience of dealing with challenging environments, and has pioneered projects that incorporate climatic risk. For example, rural-based projects in Burkina Faso, Mali and Bangladesh aim to improve local management of water resources and to strengthen community resilience to water-related threats. If adaptation is prioritised at COP21, there will be opportunities for WaterAid to scale up and increase the effectiveness of these projects.

There’s one day left until the end of COP21. One day to iron out the new global agreement on climate change and create a pledge that benefits all countries and people equitably. And, because the conversations in Paris will have consequences that will reverberate for many years to come, we need to ensure WASH forms part of these discussions and part of the future.

Miriam Denis Le Seve is Policy Officer for Climate Change at WaterAid. She tweets as @miriamdleseve.

With thanks to Vincent Casey, WaterAid's Technical Support Manager, for his contributions. You can read more of his work here.


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