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Today is World Water Day and the start of the UN 2023 Water Conference in New York, making this the biggest date for water activists in recent memory. At the same time, the release of the IPCC’s historic sixth synthesis report on climate change on March 20th makes it hard to talk about anything else here.
As a co-founder of Water.org, our mission is universal access to safe water and sanitation, and climate change fundamentally endangers that. The IPCC has confirmed an accelerating “intensification of the hydrological cycle”: half the world’s population is experiencing severe water scarcity at some point in their life, and when rain does fall, it’s falling heavier and more destructively on the places where 700 million people live. The synthesis boils down to this: we still can’t say exactly what is happening in the water cycle, when or where, but we can say that it will be hard on anyone who’s not prepared.
We still can’t say exactly what is happening in the water cycle, when or where, but we can say that it will be hard on anyone who’s not prepared.
People living in poverty are acutely vulnerable to the impacts when they rely on unstable water supply and sanitation, while having no way to invest in something safer like a household water connection or toilet. Those at the base of the economic pyramid don’t have the cash to upgrade to improved, more climate-resilient services – but when they can access the capital, they are better prepared to face climate risks.
Household actions go big
The IPCC calculates that 60% of climate adaptation happening worldwide is in response to water-based risks. That action is overwhelmingly local, and we are proud to support a whole lot of it. Water.org has helped more than 53 million people use small, affordable loans to construct locally appropriate and climate-conscious water and sanitation solutions.
Removing barriers to finance at the household level is a really big deal for two reasons. First, people can invest in solutions that suit their changing environments. People borrowing from our microfinance partners say their choices of improvements are based on experiences of droughts, floods, and storms. Many, for example, use microloans to upgrade from unimproved sources such as open wells, lakes, and streams to piped water or protected boreholes. Others upgrade from open defecation – a source of dangerous water contamination, especially during floods – and install latrines or toilets.
Second, this pathway is a big deal because it is moving at a spectacular pace. According to SDGFunders, philanthropic foundations have laid out USD 2.7 billion toward global water targets since 2016. In this same span of years, Water.org has mobilised USD 4 billion of capital toward household water and sanitation microloans through our local financial institution partners. This is what the grassroots of real, sweeping climate resilience are made of.
Photo source: DAWNING/Nick Parisse
Better lives in any climate
Like the best climate resilience measures, safe household water and sanitation access improves millions of lives whether or not climate change makes itself felt.
Where droughts increase scarcity and demand for water, households that formerly had to buy their water by the jerrycan from dealers can connect to much less expensive and less price-volatile sources.
Where women had to travel hours to collect water, and even farther during dry spells, they can use their time for… anything else, really.
Our evidence base demonstrates that improving water and sanitation access through affordable finance helps people withstand climate shocks while they transform their lives. And the biggest winners are women.
Where girls had to be pulled out of school to help find water, they can complete their education – one of the reasons that household water supply and sanitation are associated with higher language and cognitive scores, with better school days leading to a better income later.
Where extreme weather events contaminated water, households can avoid pathogens with safe water sources and avoid spreading them thanks to improved sanitation. In doing so, they escape the cycle of medical expenses and missed work for both the sick and their carers.
Our evidence base demonstrates that improving water and sanitation access through affordable finance helps people withstand climate shocks while they transform their lives. And the biggest winners are women – usually the ones responsible for securing water, and the ones who take out 90% of water and sanitation microloans.
Also on the Forum Network: Profit or Poverty? The democratic imperative for water, sanitation and hygiene for all by Pedro Arrojo-Agudo, UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation
Into uncharted waters, together
Our USD 4 billion approach is anchored in trust that these households know what solutions will serve them best, not only in the climate they live with but also amid the intensification of the hydrological cycle.
That is not to say that households can solve it all. They are part of much larger water supply, sanitation and financial systems that all have to connect to make their solutions possible – the plumbing of water, waste and capital. But most water and sanitation systems were built for the last century’s hydrological cycle. This is why Water.org has launched a new water and climate initiative that will target the system level: it will help infrastructure providers invest in more efficient energy use, lose less water to leaks, and deliver more reliably to new customers at the base of the economic pyramid. This initiative is projected to provide 100 million people with access to safe water and sanitation.
[Households] are part of much larger water supply, sanitation and financial systems that all have to connect to make their solutions possible – the plumbing of water, waste and capital.
As for the plumbing of capital, we urge for changes in policy and practice, and for all countries dealing with climate chaos to remove bottlenecks and create opportunities for financing. Leaders need to craft robust regulations that incentivise private investment in water and sanitation as a complement to existing public funding, with safeguards to keep lending accessible, affordable and sustainable. There is a winning combination here: public support to those most in need of it, private finance to households who can manage and benefit greatly from microloans, and major capital for climate-resilient and efficient infrastructure. These streams come together when they serve the needs of the people most vulnerable to changes in the hydrological cycle.
We have seen this combination working. If we can keep it growing toward universal access to safe water and sanitation, that will be foundational to meeting our other urgent challenges – including the climate crisis. That is why we are celebrating World Water Day even at this most critical time for the planet’s climate: water should be celebrated, and shared.
To learn more, check out also the OECD's work on Water
The world is uniting for water action at the UN 2023 Water Conference starting today. The OECD will be there and actively participating throughout the three days. Find out more!