For people living on the front lines of the climate crisis, life is becoming increasingly uncertain and precarious. And those front lines are changing.
Millions of people are experiencing a dramatic ‘flip’ in extreme weather: communities that used to endure long droughts are now facing more frequent flooding, while previously flood-prone areas are becoming increasingly dry.
Adapting to one extreme is hard enough – what’s next for communities caught between the extremes of too much or too little water?
Mbale, Eastern Uganda
Life in the Mbale region of Uganda used to be much more predictable. People knew when to expect rain, and when to prepare for the dry season.
But weather patterns are becoming increasingly uncertain: months that used to be wet are now dry, and, when the rains do come, they can be devastating.
These days, we’re in total confusion
Satellite imagery of the Mbale region, Eastern Uganda, during a dry period in 2016.
As rainfall becomes more frequent and intense, the risk of floods – like this one in 2022 – is increasing.
Long dry spells, punctuated by short, heavy rains, spell disaster for people relying on small-scale agriculture.
And extremes of both drought and floods are threatening people’s access to the three essentials they need to survive – clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene – as boreholes run dry, floods wash away latrines, and supplies are contaminated by silt and debris.
“Climate change has brought us hunger”
As a mother of three, 28-year-old Rose Mary Abbo worries for her family’s future.
The rainy season is very short and the dry seasons are very long – together, resulting in crop failure.
As the dry season in her village of Namutumba grows ever longer and hotter, and the rains become heavier and more unpredictable, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to produce what she needs to survive.
When food runs short, she and her young children eat just one meal a day.
People get sick after drinking water from the boreholes… We have a feeling it’s not safe for human consumption.
During the dry season, many of the local water sources dry up entirely. Those which do still function barely yield enough, forcing people – usually women and girls – to wait hours to fetch just enough to meet their household’s basic needs.
When the rains come, they should be a blessing – but they’re so short and heavy that they quickly contaminate water supplies, leaving them muddied and full of silt.
Most people in Namutumba can’t afford the firewood or charcoal they’d need to boil water before drinking it; as a result, illnesses are common.
“My latrine recently collapsed, and this is not the first time”
Heavy rains in villages like Pasaya have led to soil erosion, weakening toilet foundations and leaving them susceptible to being washed away by flash floods.
Anna Rose Aori simply can’t afford to keep fixing her latrine every time it’s destroyed.
Her family are temporarily sharing their neighbour’s toilet, but most households here don’t have one, leaving people with no choice but to go in the bush. It’s not just undignified – especially for women and girls – but it’s unsafe too, exposing people to potentially deadly diseases.
“In a week it can rain heavily for two or three days and cause havoc”
In the east of the region, communities living in the shadows of the towering Mount Elgon face the additional threat of landslides – an increasingly common occurrence, as heavy, intense rains lead to devastating flash floods.
Patrick Meru Kuloba, 66, is a member of the district council. As a life-long resident of Bududa, he’s witnessed first-hand the impacts of climate change, coupled with population growth, on his community.
The slopes used to be densely forested, but as more people have settled in the surrounding area and cut down trees, the soils simply can’t handle the amount of rain that falls now.
It’s so dangerous to live here that people are starting to move away from the area their family has called home for generations.
It’s a difficult choice: leave behind their ancestral lands and try to settle elsewhere, or stay put and face not only the ever-present danger of devastating landslides, but the insidious threats of hunger and disease too.
Patrick, for one, has decided he’s not going anywhere.
Instead, he’s working closely with other local leaders, spearheading a campaign encouraging residents to plant fast-growing, soil-strengthening bamboo along the riverbanks and up the slopes of Mount Elgon.
It’s just one of a raft of measures people across Mbale are taking to adapt to the realities of climate change, from rebuilding toilets on safer, higher ground, to planting hedges around their fields, providing a natural defence against future floods.
In Northern Ghana, erratic, highly irregular weather patterns are leaving farmers unable to predict when to plant their crops, and families struggling to find enough water to get by.
Torrential rain in recent years has ruined the soil, washing away nutrients and making it difficult for crops to thrive. And land within the White Volta river basin risks being flooded, especially when – as in late August of this year – the valves of the Bagré Dam in neighbouring Burkina Faso are opened to release excess water. Swathes of farmland were destroyed, leaving people at risk of hunger and malnutrition.
Yet, paradoxically, clean water is scarce.
During the dry season, finding water is a struggle. Women and girls spend hours – every single day – walking to fetch just enough to meet their families’ basic needs.
“Knowing when to plant is a gamble now... It may or may not pay off.”
Inusah lost everything in this summer’s floods.
After spending GHS52,000 (around £170) preparing his farm, he should have easily doubled his investment. But the floodwaters swept all his crops away – and with them, his ability to provide for his family of seven.
Inusah’s been farming all his life, but he can’t predict what to do in the face of increasingly erratic weather. He starts planting early to try to avoid the flooding, but ultimately, the success of his harvest depends entirely on the one thing he can’t control: the rain.
“The dry season is stressful… We don’t always have enough water to drink.”
While floods bring destruction, the absence of rain comes with its own problems.
With no harvested rainwater to use for washing and cooking, competition increases at the nearest borehole. It’s usually women and girls – like Ta-aba, Inusah’s 13-year-old daughter – who must shoulder the burden of walking there multiple times a day, waiting in line, then carrying the heavy containers home.
In the rainy season, I go to the borehole three times before school starts and five times when it ends.
In the dry season, it almost doubles: I collect water six times before school, and seven times after. My two younger siblings collect water three times each.
I wish we had running water at home, or at least closer boreholes.
“One question stays in my mind: how do I find enough water to meet my family’s needs?”
For 37-year-old Safura Amadu, water – finding it, fetching it, managing it – is a source of constant worry for over half the year.
It’s such a stressful time.
Between August and December, her family can harvest and save rainwater. But come February, their stores are running low, and the nearby well is starting to dry out.
By March, the amount of time it takes to collect water triples, with women waiting at the community borehole for up to three hours – every single morning – to fetch just enough for that day’s needs.
Even rising before the sun, Safura barely has time to collect water for her family, tend to the animals, and take care of household chores – all before starting work as a seamstress.
Nowadays, there's only occasional rainfall in the first half of the year, so planting begins in July. Late planting means less food.
Like most people in Galaka, Safura’s husband is a farmer. But the shortening growing season, coupled with the risk of flooding, is threatening his ability to put food on the table.
Communities here can't control the rains, but they're doing what they can to manage what water they do have.
People come together to conserve every precious drop, holding each other accountable to make sure nobody uses clean borehole water for anything other than drinking.
As part of WaterAid’s climate adaptation work in Galaka, Safura's learned how to monitor groundwater levels, sharing her findings with her community and the district authorities. Building a picture of reserves like this is a vital first step towards planning ahead and making supplies last.
It’s a similar story in southern Mozambique, where prolonged droughts, punctuated by heavy rains, are leaving previously self-sufficient households with no choice but to buy what they need to survive.
Early this year, the first weeks of February brought heavy rainfall, leading to widespread flooding across the Boane, Namaacha, Matola and Magude Districts of Maputo Province.
Nothing has been saved from these floods
The town of Boane, about 30km west of the Mozambican capital Maputo, pictured in 2018.
The floods caused widespread damage, destroying homes, infrastructure and agricultural land, and displacing over 16,000 people1.
For those now living in emergency shelters and resettlement centres, the impacts are long-lasting.
“I was traumatised by that February rain… My academic knowledge went with the water”
14-year-old Kiequer’s ambition is to become a scientist. He loves maths and works hard at school – but the devastating floods have threatened to derail his path to success.
As floodwaters rushed into his home in Boane, Kiequer was forced to flee in the early hours of 10 February.
After seeking refuge on the roof of a neighbouring house, he and his family – along with around 50 other people – spent a whole day waiting to be rescued. Over the weeks that followed, he moved between three different temporary shelters, before arriving at a resettlement centre with his aunt and sister.
The experience has left him with lasting trauma.
My biggest fear is when it rains... There was so much water, all I could think about was death.
Now, Kiequer’s faced with the opposite problem. He grew up with running water on tap in his back garden; the centre has a standpipe, but residents have to pay to use it. Not everyone can afford to, leaving many – like Kiequer and his aunt – with no choice but to walk to a well about 2km away.
One day I was late for school because we were waiting at the well. My teacher got angry with me... From that day on, I started collecting water in the afternoons.
Water is such a precious resource here that Kiequer can’t wash his clothes at home like he’s used to, instead having to make the 20-minute journey to a pond whenever he needs to do laundry.
It’s yet more time that could be better spent studying and working towards his ambitions – or simply being free to make new friends, spend time with his family, and rebuild his life after the trauma.
When we arrived here, we didn’t have a toilet. We had to build it ourselves. I’ve heard that people are sick with cholera and diarrhoea
The centre’s residents made it out of the floods alive, but their safety is far from guaranteed. And without a reliable source of clean water, or decent toilets, potentially deadly diseases spread rapidly.
“The land is too dry. But when it rains a lot, we lose big”
The situation isn't much better for those still living in their home communities.
Marta Cacilda’s house, toilet and fields were completely obliterated by the floods.
But it’s the ongoing lack of rain – and its impact on her small farm – that remains her biggest worry.
“There’s a lot of drought and famine now, and it doesn’t rain like it used to.
"In the past, we produced enough food to eat, sell, and even give away. Now, we can only produce enough to eat that day – we don’t know about tomorrow.”
She’s tried to adapt by switching to more drought-resistant crops like cassava, but even that can only survive so long without rain. As a result, Marta is almost entirely dependent on money sent by her children, who are away working in South Africa.
“They send me money and I use it to buy food. The problem is that we depend a lot on production – we have no alternative means of survival.”
It’s not just food that Marta struggles to find the money for.
The only reliable source of clean water here is from private vendors, which many people simply can’t afford.
Despite being 73 years old, Marta’s left with no choice but to walk 1.5km to a stagnant pond, shared with wildlife and livestock. Illness is common, even after using water purifiers, but for Marta and many others here, there’s simply no alternative.
Unprecedented flooding in 2022 left almost a third of Pakistan underwater, killing almost 2,000 people2 and causing over $30 billion of damage and economic losses3.
Over the past two decades, the area around Badin District in the south-east of the country – previously associated with hotter, drier conditions – has become increasingly prone to heavy rains and floods.
As decades of punishing drought are followed by unmanageable rains, the impacts of this ‘climate flip’ are far-reaching – affecting people’s food security, livelihoods, and access to clean water.
Satellite imagery from 2018 shows the Indus River basin, in southeast Pakistan, during a period of drought.
The same area captured in 2022 has been almost entirely submerged.
The floods contaminated the underground storage tank and network of hand pumps in Ameer Bakhsh Kalui village, polluting the water supply and rendering it totally unusable.
As a result, residents like Momal Abdul Qayyum, a women’s health visitor and mother of four, have reverted to relying entirely on the nearby Jerks canal, filtering the muddy water through pieces of cloth before use.
In addition to coping with the aftermath of the flood, this year has brought fresh challenges. Low rainfall means the canal, which used to flow freely, now remains dry for up to a fortnight at a time.
This is the year of drought
For those who can afford to, buying expensive drinking water from privately-run tankers offers at least a temporary solution. But for those who can’t, the closest source is a town 20km away.
In such dire circumstances, no one extends a helping hand, not even when someone asks for water. Each drop is valued like ghee, treated as a precious and expensive resource.
“My entire existence has been centred on this village”
Generations of 62-year-old Muhammad Musa’s family have been farmers, cultivating cotton fields around the village of Haji Babbar Kalui.
But years of persistent drought, punctuated by the two major floods of 2011 and 2022, have consigned this once-thriving way of life to memory.
Now, he and his sons – along with many other men from the village – work as casual labourers on construction sites in Karachi city.
The work is hard, dangerous, and badly-paid – but decades of drought have taken a devastating toll on the soils here, leaving Muhammad Musa and his fellow farmers with little choice but to abandon their fields.
“In my childhood, village life was considerably less challenging”
Soni Bheel remembers a time when life in the small village of Bachal Bheel village was very different.
Crops like spinach, squash and okra thrived, with residents coming together to share the abundant harvests. Small lakes and ponds dotted the area, providing fish and the opportunity to hunt the birds which flocked to their shores. Many people raised livestock, sharing milk freely with their neighbours; meat and butter were affordable ingredients.
But over time, Soni has witnessed drastic changes in the weather patterns – and experienced first-hand their impact on her way of life.
The passage of time has brought about changes in the seasons… This year has been marked by drought.
Cotton production is dwindling. It’s getting harder and harder to grow enough food, or fodder for animals. And the Jerks canal is becoming increasingly unreliable.
Now, aged 83, she works hard in the fields during the cotton-picking season, earning around $1 a day. The rest of the year, she makes ends meet by collecting paper and plastic waste to sell, and weaving traditional straw baskets and baby swings.
“Our village was washed away in the flood”
Last year wasn’t the first time Soni experienced the devastation of flooding.
She’s lived through many, including one which destroyed her home in 1964. Back then, though, Soni recalls that times weren’t as challenging, and the community quickly came together to recover. But 2022 was different – and people are all too aware of the growing danger of it happening again.
The 2022 flood posed a grave threat.
Our village was washed away, but it taught us a vital lesson: we must build our houses on higher ground to protect them from future floods. We’re now elevating our homes with a two-foot-high platform.
Our Climate Fight
Around the world, ordinary people – farmers like Inusah, community leaders like Patrick, grandmothers like Soni – are doing whatever they can to adapt to the realities of life on the front lines of climate change.
They’re working together to monitor water reserves, conserving supplies to make every drop last.
They’re sowing crops that can withstand droughts, and planting trees to protect them from floods.
And they’re building with future threats in mind, raising homes and toilets off the ground and safe from floodwaters.
But without large-scale investment and political leadership, there’s only so much communities can do to protect themselves from climate hazards – especially when those hazards are changing rapidly.
That’s why, ahead of COP28, we’re calling on the Government to invest one third of the UK’s international climate finance budget in sustainable, locally-led adaptation projects – and to persuade other world leaders to make similar commitments.
Mbale, Uganda: WaterAid/James Kiyimba
Galaka, Ghana: WaterAid/Nana Kofi
Boane, Mozambique: WaterAid/Dennis Lupenga
Badin, Pakistan: WaterAid/Khaula Jamil
Satellite imagery: Planet