The known unknowns of climate change

Our Chief Executive, Barbara Frost, highlights how climate change’s impact will be felt most by the very poorest communities.


23 Sep 2014

For those of us working to end poverty in the developing world, the issues swirling around the climate change debate can be challenging.

There are, of course, a small handful of sceptics that remain resolute in the face of the overwhelming evidence and scientific consensus. However, for those of us who have little doubt that climate changes are happening, there is still a high degree of uncertainty about exactly how a warming climate will impact our lives and particularly the lives of the most vulnerable people.

Scientists can predict, for example, that cyclones, droughts and other extreme weather events are likely to occur more often because our planet is warming, but cannot conclusively directly attribute any of these individual events to climate change.

This can make it more difficult to persuade decision-makers and individuals to act to both urgently cut carbon emissions and help vulnerable communities to resist the effects of climate change.

We can be more certain of the economic impact of moving to a low-carbon economy. As the Co-Chair of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, Lord Stern, recently reported, “If we choose low-carbon investment we can generate strong, high-quality growth – not just in the future, but now. But if we continue down the high-carbon route, climate change will bring severe risks to long-term prosperity.”

We also know that climate change’s effects will be felt most by the very poorest communities, through droughts, floods and changing weather patterns. Drinking water can be contaminated with salt water and human waste from floods and rising sea levels, and safe water is harder to access during droughts.

This is why I was invited as Chief Executive of WaterAid to speak on the UN General Assembly’s Climate Science Panel this week.

Women monitoring drought in Burkina Faso
Women monitoring drought levels in Burkina Faso. Credit: WaterAid

In our work in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia we see the effect of drought and floods on poor communities – water tables dropping, shallow wells drying up and flood water contamination. Action is needed to help these communities to adapt to current changes, and to mitigate against the impact of future disasters. We cannot wait until science can tell us exactly how lives will be affected because for many communities this could be too late.

From Bangladesh to Ethiopia, many of the communities we work with are trapped in vicious cycles of poverty because they live in some of the most variable and difficult climates on earth. The idea that an increasingly unpredictable climate could make life even harder for them with is truly frightening.

We are adapting how we work to take into account increasing climate variability and ensure that we help communities become more resilient to the effects of climate change.

Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – the world’s leading scientific authority – described climate change as a ‘threat multiplier’. They were making the point that people whose livelihoods are already most vulnerable are likely to be the worst affected. A 2009 report by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction showed that in the previous year 99% of disaster casualties were in developing countries.

This is why I highlighted the needs of the world’s poorest when I spoke at the UN Climate Change Summit, and pointed out that the 700 million people without access to drinking water and the 2.5 billion without a toilet are already facing a crisis which climate change will make worse.

In 2009, when the devastating cyclone Aila hit the southwest coastal zone of Bangladesh, ten-year-old Shusmita Mandal was living in Koira district with her father. Her mother had tragically died 18 months earlier during cyclone Sidr, and the family was struggling to survive on their father’s agricultural wage of less than $1.25 a day. They were therefore extremely vulnerable when the second cyclone hit.

Cyclone Aila forced Shusmita and her father to leave their home and take shelter on an embankment, along with 600,000 others. Lacking access to safe drinking water, sanitation and education, they spent the next two years on the edge of existence.

When finally they could return home they discovered that the salt water that had flooded the local area had made growing food impossible. Shusmita’s father struggled to find work and Shusmita had to travel more than 1km from her home to collect safe drinking water.

Cyclone Aila forced Shusmita (left) to leave her home and take shelter on an embankment, along with 600,000 others. Credit: WaterAid.

WaterAid is working hard to support Shusmita and her community to rebuild their lives. We are working with local partners and the local government to reconstruct water, sanitation and hygiene facilities, using technologies such as raised latrines and raised handpumps that are more resilient to extreme weather events.

We have also supported local committees and school clubs to educate, raise awareness, improve planning and build capacity for adaptation and reduction of the risk of the next extreme event. Now aged 15, Shusmita is working with her community and local government to demand better flood protection.

This week’s Climate Change Summit could not be timelier. 2015 will be a huge year for international cooperation on climate and development. All UN member states are working towards a series of internationally agreed Sustainable Development Goals, to be agreed next September. Soon after this, members will gather in Paris to conclude crucial climate change negotiations.

WaterAid’s longstanding call for a Sustainable Development Goal dedicated to achieving universal access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation for all by 2030 is only realistic if future investments are climate-resilient and atmospheric carbon is stabilised.

The clock is ticking on both of these processes. We are urging the international community at the UN General Assembly in New York to consider the needs of the world’s most vulnerable citizens, and to show the leadership needed for a more equal, stable and prosperous future for all – a future in which poverty is eradicated by 2030 and everyone has access to safe water and sanitation.

Discover more about our work to ensure the new Sustainable Development Goals include ambitious targets for universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene >