Impacts of climate change

Rainfall is highly unpredictable in many of the countries where WaterAid works. Droughts and floods are not uncommon. Climate change threatens to make rainfall even less predictable, possibly bringing longer droughts, more intense wet periods, and more frequent extreme weather events. Gradual shifts like sea level rise will have big consequences for coastal communities, and changing temperatures could affect the incidence of some climate-sensitive diseases. These changes, combined with other significant water-related threats, impact on water security, harvests, food security, livelihoods and health.

Additional threats to water security

People are ‘water insecure’ when they don’t have access to water of sufficient quantity and quality for basic human needs and livelihoods. Climate change is not the only threat to water security, food security, livelihoods or health. Nor is it always the most significant threat. Increased demand for water resources from growing populations, unsustainable farming, deforestation, river damming, mangrove destruction, industrial pollution and uncontrolled discharge of wastewater are causing serious water security problems, even without the additional threat of climate change. For example, encroachment and property development in wetlands reduces their capacity to absorb flood waters and can accentuate the severity of flooding events.

What is climate-resilient WASH?

Although it’s clear that WASH supports communities to adapt and be more resilient to climate change, there is a question over how resilient WASH interventions are to the impacts of climate change. When it comes to droughts, many WASH interventions are already climate-resilient, because they make water available in times of scarcity (if properly implemented). Modifications can be made to WASH interventions, making them accessible during floods and more able to withstand the destructive force of floods.

In disaster-prone areas, homes, schools, health centres and WASH infrastructure are at risk of damage during extreme weather events, such as hurricanes and cyclones. Adaptation to these events cannot only be about making pumps and latrines stronger or elevated off the ground, because some level of damage or inaccessibility will often be inevitable. Emphasis must also be on ensuring that the institutions and finances are in place to renew infrastructure and services when they are damaged or destroyed. This requires attention to planning, financing, service support and disaster risk reduction measures in place within permanent government institutions.

How does access to WASH help people adapt to climate change?

  • Good WASH services increase water availability in times of scarcity, ensuring supplies for basic needs to maintain health, food and livelihood security.
  • Water storage provides a buffer in times of water scarcity.
  • The combined benefits of improved water supply, sanitation and hygiene reduce the overall disease burden on poor and marginalised communities, meaning they are better able to cope with the impacts of climate change.

To find out some of the approaches that help build resilience to climate change, click here.

WaterAid Burkina Faso's Regional Learning Center Coordinator, Lucien Damiba, Ouedrao Edmond, WASH focal point for the local government, and Zombre Nazaire, 47, Community Development Technical Officer for DAKUPA, put a water level monitoring device into a borehole, in Basbedo, Burkina Faso, October 2014.

Strengthening institutions to support service users

This involves working with district local government and service providers (usually in remote rural areas but could include utilities and private service providers in more urban environments) to strengthen planning, financing, monitoring, service delivery quality, post-implementation support to users, revenue recovery, asset management, accountability mechanisms and coordination.

Community-managed water supply services sometimes fail because no support is available from permanent institutions to keep them running. Additionally, poorly-sited, designed, constructed and supervised boreholes can fail prematurely. A failed WASH service does not provide resilience to current conditions, let alone future climate change. Work aimed at strengthening local institutions to provide high-quality services, management, financial and technical support to service users, coupled with efforts to ensure institutions are accountable to users, is critical if people are to be able to adapt to climate change.

Examples exist in Timor-Leste, Nicaragua and Malawi.

Community-Based Water Resource Management – the Securing Water Resources Approach

The Securing Water Resources Approach (SWRA) combines principles of Water Resource Management (WRM) with WASH service delivery. It consists of the following steps:

  1. Linking with national and sub-national ministries and agencies with water mandates to establish a task force that will take forward implementation.
  2. Understanding regions/districts where WRM will improve water security.
  3. Facilitating participatory assessment of who needs to use which water source for what purpose and when, taking into account how much water they need.
  4. Understanding threats to water resources and their possible impacts on water availability and quality for basic needs and small-scale livelihoods.
  5. Monitoring threats through hydrological monitoring of groundwater levels, rainfall, surface flows and demand.
  6. Using monitoring information to make decisions on what management processes must exist to govern water use (for example, allocations, demand management, rationing).
  7. Using monitoring information to make the case for improvements to services funded and implemented by national institutions.
  8. Sharing monitoring data with national agencies to build up a national picture of water-related risk.

The approach is cyclical with steps 4–8 repeated.

Examples exist in Burkina Faso, Mali and Ghana. WaterAid Bangladesh also carries out a Participatory WASH Vulnerability Analysis, which is based on similar principles of community engagement and mobilisation.


  • provides a means of managing water-related threats, which include climate change
  • helps to identify appropriate adaptation strategies tailored to the various threats in a particular location
  • complements national Integrated WRM (IWRM)1 and climate change adaptation plans, ensuring that they are based on ground realities
  • provides monitoring data which can be used to understand issues driving water insecurity, reducing dependence on anecdotal hearsay which may or may not explain why water resource problems have emerged
  • strengthens the link between water users, government institutions and service providers, acting as a channel for water users to call for assistance when necessary.

1. The Global Water Partnership defines IWRM as 'a process which promotes the coordinated development and management of water, land and related resources in order to maximise economic and social welfare in an equitable manner without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems'. 

Sawadogo Karim, 50, and Bamogo Salam, 60, hoe the earth while Bamogo Salifou, 30, waters crops in a market garden using water from a WaterAid well, in Basbedo, Burkina Faso, October 2014.

Multiple use services (MUS)

An MUS approach involves designing WASH services to accommodate multiple water needs, including livelihood uses, such as cattle watering and small-scale irrigation.

Examples exist in Burkina Faso, Mali and Madagascar.

WASH services that are designed to accommodate multiple water needs not only strengthen water security but also food and livelihood security, especially in areas where other water sources run out during the dry season. Increased food and livelihood security provide greater overall resilience to climatic change. If services are not designed to accommodate multiple water needs, users may modify them, resulting in damage. Damaged services do not provide resilience to climate change.

To find out about some of the practical interventions that help people adapt to climate change, click here.

There are numerous practical interventions and WASH technologies which help strengthen community resilience to the impacts of climate change.

Villagers work on capping the water source, currently an unprotected spring, in Adi Sibhat.

Groundwater development (using springs)

In its most basic form, spring development involves protecting the immediate area around a spring and constructing a facility where water can be collected safely. The flow from upland springs (which are often some distance away from water users) can be partially diverted into pipes and tanks that supply tap stands in communities. Such schemes can serve large numbers of users. Examples exist in Ethiopia, Madagascar, Timor-Leste and Nicaragua.

Springs can provide a reliable year-round supply of clean water, if their catchment areas are protected from environmental degradation, and leakage in distribution systems is well-controlled.

Groundwater development (using dug wells)

Hand-dug wells are manually constructed using hand tools. They vary in diameter from 1.5m to several metres. They are typically no deeper than 30m because digging becomes increasingly difficult (and unsafe) at greater depths, but some wells do exceed 30m. If wells are dug using de-watering techniques, they are more likely to be able to accommodate seasonal fluctuations in water availability. Wells dug without de-watering are prone to drying, which could mistakenly be attributed to climate change. Examples exist in many countries where WaterAid works.

Dug wells can provide year-round access to water and are a suitable climate change adaptation option in areas where groundwater is relatively close to the surface. In areas where groundwater moves at very slow rates, wide diameter dug wells are appropriate solutions because they provide greater storage capacity than boreholes do. This storage is less likely to be exhausted by manual pumping.

Men drilling a borehole at Nampongo Primary School, Zambia.

Groundwater development (using boreholes or tubewells)

Groundwater acts as a giant natural storage reservoir that can provide water when surface sources have dried up or are contaminated. The natural filtering property of aquifers ensures that groundwater is generally (although not always) of good quality. If groundwater is well managed and protected from pollution, it can provide reliable year-round supplies. Groundwater can be accessed and developed by drilling boreholes into underground water-bearing fractures, soil or rock formations. Boreholes may be fitted with a manually operated pump that can lift water from 45 to 60m, or a motorised pump that can lift water from deeper depths. Motorised pumping can supply large piped schemes. Examples exist in most countries where WaterAid works.

Research by the British Geological Survey, investigating the likely impact of climate change on groundwater, indicates that groundwater is more resilient to changes in climate than rivers, lakes and ponds.Well-sited, well-designed, well-constructed and supervised boreholes tapping into groundwater are a credible climate change adaptation strategy. Because groundwater can usually be developed close to the home, the hardship of water collection is reduced, meaning people can collect more water in less time to meet their daily needs. Well-sealed and well-protected boreholes provide water for hygiene and help to reduce the incidence of water-transmitted diseases, meaning people are better able to cope with the impacts of climate change.

Dhruba Shrestha, 63, head mason, prepares rebar on a new disaster resilient a water tank in Lele, Nepal.


This involves construction of tanks, cisterns, dams and reservoirs to capture and store water when it is available. Examples exist in many countries where WaterAid works.

Storage is an essential component of any water supply system. Without storage, there is no way to make water available in times of scarcity or to accommodate changing demands. Storage capacity in many countries is extremely low, meaning water is not always available in times of need. Tanks and reservoirs provide much-needed storage to cover water shortages, helping people to adapt to climate variability.

Elevated water points

These are hand pumps installed on elevated platforms in flood-prone areas. They tap into groundwater. Examples exist in Bangladesh.

They provide access to groundwater during floods. If the borehole the pump draws from is well-sealed, it is possible that water supplies will be protected from inflow of contaminated water.

Elevated latrines

These are latrines built on stilts or a concrete or brick plinth. Waste may drain into a sealed chamber to be emptied, or into a septic bank buried beneath the ground. Examples exist in Nicaragua and Bangladesh.

Elevated latrines provides access to sanitation facilities during floods.


  • Sand dams involve constructing a barrier across a river channel that contains high volumes of coarse grained sediments. The barrier allows water to flow but traps coarse grained sediment behind it. This sediment acts as an artificial aquifer, storing water below the surface and protecting it from contamination. Sand dams are only appropriate in very specific hydrogeological conditions. Examples exist in Ethiopia and Burkina Faso.

    Sand dams can store and provide large volumes of water in times of scarcity. They may contribute to increased soil water availability in the immediate vicinity of dams, improving prospects for crop growth. Water can be used for irrigation and livestock watering, strengthening livelihood and food security.

  • Sub-surface dams involve digging into a river bed and building a dam under the surface, which slows the underground flow of water. No recent examples exist in countries where WaterAid works.

    Like sand dams, sub-surface dams constructed in river channels can retain water behind them, making supplies available in times of scarcity.

  • Small dams involve constructing a barrage across a river channel, storing surface water in a pond or reservoir behind it. Examples exist in Mali and India.

    Small dams constructed in river channels store water, making it available for crop watering and other uses in times of scarcity.

Rainwater harvesting remains the main source of water for Nyiragiseke School. But during the dry season, the lake in the back is the only option. Nyiragiseke village, Rweru Sector, Bugesera district, Ethiopia. 22 April 2016

Rainwater harvesting (rooftop catchment with tank)

Rainwater falls onto a clean roof surface and is channelled by guttering and pipes into a storage tank. Storage tanks can vary in capacity, and can provide for households, schools or health centres. People draw water from a tap connected to the storage tank. Examples exist in Uganda, Pakistan, Nicaragua, Burkina Faso, Papua New Guinea and Rwanda.

They provide a means of capturing and storing a relatively clean supply of water that can be used in times of scarcity. If used sparingly, for drinking, washing and cooking only, rainwater can provide essential supplies during dry periods. Supplies may not last for a full dry season, but can act as a buffer, supplementing water available from other sources.

Rainwater harvesting (ground catchment with water flowing into protected tanks)

In certain areas, where there are outcrops of impermeable rock, it is possible to capture rainwater runoff and direct it into storage tanks. Relatively large catchments can be enclosed within small walls, resulting in collection and storage of large amounts of water. In some desert areas in South Asia this ancient practice is employed to capture precious rainwater in protected tanks. Example exists in Pakistan.

It provides a means of capturing and storing a relatively clean supply of water that can be used in times of scarcity. Supplies can be used for kitchen garden and small livestock watering, strengthening household food security and resulting in people being better able to adapt to impacts of climate change.

Rainwater harvesting (ponds)

This involves the construction of ponds that collect rainwater or runoff diverted into them from the surrounding area. Examples in Bangladesh have used slow sand filters to treat the water.

In areas where the groundwater is saline or contaminated, rainwater collection in sealed ponds can make critically needed supplies of fresh water available in times of scarcity. However, pond water must be filtered before it can be used for human consumption. These supplies can provide much-needed water in areas with intermittent rainfall.

Managed groundwater recharge

This involves capturing and channelling water into recharge wells that replenish groundwater during the rainy season. Examples exist in Nepal and Bangladesh.

In areas with high groundwater salinity, fluoride, arsenic or obstruction of recharge (for example in urban areas), managed groundwater recharge can help to dilute salinity, arsenic and fluoride concentrations in the area around a well, provided that groundwater flows do not take diluted water away from the well area. Increased availability of cleaner water helps people adapt to water shortages that may emerge due to climate variability.

Ajuloju Ganiyu, 24, sewage disposal truck driver in Lagos, Nigeria, September 2016.

Improved sanitation

This involves promoting solutions that remove faecal waste from the environment. Sanitation solutions typically capture, store, transport, treat and safely dispose of faecal waste. Examples exist in all countries where WaterAid works.

Safe capture, storage, transportation, treatment and disposal of faecal waste is critical if exposure to disease is to be minimised. With reduced exposure to disease, people are better able to cope with the impacts of climate change.

Water treatment

This involves the removal of harmful constituents from water so that it is safe to drink. This can be done using a variety of techniques, which include sedimentation, filtration, addition of chemicals, adsorption, boiling, distillation, ion exchange, reverse osmosis and solar disinfection. Examples exist in Nicaragua, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Uganda and other countries where WaterAid works.

Water treatment, coupled with improved hygiene and sanitation, can help to reduce the incidence of debilitating diseases that weaken people’s ability to sustain livelihoods. With reduced exposure to disease, people are better able to cope with the impacts of climate change.

Crizonia Soares, 7, and Dircia Dos Santos, 7, at one of the new tap stands in the village of Grotu in Manufahi District, Timor-Leste, 2015.

Hygiene promotion

This involves promoting improved hygiene behaviours, such as handwashing with soap at critical times of the day, for example after using the toilet, and before food preparation and meals. Examples exist in all countries where WaterAid works.

Improved hygiene behaviours help reduce exposure to waterborne and water-washed diseases that occur now and may be accentuated by climate change. With reduced exposure to disease, people are better able to cope with the impacts of climate change.

To find out how climate change policy and finance can support access to WASH services and improve water security, click here.

How can climate change policy improve access to WASH services?

World leaders signed up to a historic new climate change agreement in Paris in December 2015. All countries now have new, internationally-binding obligations to reduce carbon emissions, in addition to significant opportunities to secure funding for their adaptation efforts. The seriousness of the climate threat, combined with the binding nature of the climate agreement and the financing that is available, means that climate change is often a very high priority for policy-makers.

It is important to ensure that WASH sector strategies and institutions incorporate climate risk, and that these are then reflected in emerging climate change adaptation plans. Ensuring coordination and coherence between new climate institutions and existing WASH institutions is critical.

How can climate change finance improve access to WASH services?

Globally, new specialised climate funds are being created (such as the Green Climate Fund, which aims to channel more than US$100 billion per year by 2020) and traditional donors (such as the World Bank) are seeking to ensure their development funding secures climate resilience benefits. Nationally, many countries have created their own climate funds to channel finance towards activities that help build climate resilience. WaterAid has a part to play in demonstrating how WASH and sustainably managed water resources build resilience to climate change.

For poor and marginalised people to be resilient to climate change, as well as other threats to water security, they need WASH services that will last, day after day, year after year. Climate financing and the renewed political and policy focus on threats to sustainable WASH services offer new opportunities to ensure WASH services are prioritised and deliver long-term benefits.