Thursday April 18, 2024

Together for WASH

The link between climate change and WASH is undeniable. Droughts and floods, intensified by climate change

By Salman Danish
February 28, 2024
Stranded people wade through a flooded area after heavy monsoon rainfall in Rajanpur district of Punjab province on August 25, 2022. — AFP
Stranded people wade through a flooded area after heavy monsoon rainfall in Rajanpur district of Punjab province on August 25, 2022. — AFP

Climate change is no longer a looming spectre from the 90s, casting a shadow over our future. It is here and it means business. We are scrambling to mitigate its effects and looking for solutions in everything – from renewable energy, tree plantation and sustainable practices to energy and disaster preparedness – and yet, amidst these vital efforts, one crucial aspect remains woefully ignored: water, sanitation, and hygiene or WASH (SDG 6).

So why do we sideline WASH? The reasons are varied, ranging from funding constraints to a lack of awareness and integration within the existing climate plans. The most immediate and common reason is the belief that WASH is just ‘building toilets’.

Building toilets, while an important component of WASH, is just one piece of the bigger picture. The phenomenon encompasses a broader spectrum of practices and improvements and aims to elevate health, dignity, and wellbeing by ensuring access to three fundamental resources: clean water, improved sanitation, and good hygiene practices, and reducing its scope to ‘building toilets’ is a grave injustice.

Clean water, far from just a source for drinking, becomes crucial for personal hygiene and ensuring food safety. WASH goes beyond providing water sources, emphasizing proper water management and storage techniques to minimize contamination.

Improved sanitation encompasses far more than just toilets, extending to safe waste disposal facilities, menstrual hygiene management resources, and community-level sanitation systems. By addressing these diverse elements, WASH tackles open defecation, promotes environmental safety and contributes significantly to achieving broader goals relating to water, sanitation and hygiene.

Building toilets, although significant, represents just one step within the comprehensive approach of WASH. There needs to be an associated behavioural change which can only occur through education and awareness raising. Merely building physical infrastructure is not enough; there is a need to campaign encouraging good hygiene practices – washing hands with soap after using toilets and before preparing and/or consuming food – food safety and handling guidelines, and water safety and storage guidelines, etc to ensure adequate WASH standards are adopted along with the new infrastructure.

This means that WASH isn’t just an optional add-on to make some projects look pretty or an optional check-list item. It is an essential pillar of community health and a shield against climate change-related shocks.

The link between climate change and WASH is undeniable. Droughts and floods, intensified by climate change, disrupt access to clean water and sanitation, forming breeding grounds for disease and despair. Flood waters contaminate clean water sources, making them undrinkable and unusable; not only that, but lack of proper sewage treatment in rural areas has also contaminated the groundwater to such a point that it has also become undrinkable along with once clear ponds and streams, which have become dark and scummy bogs.

On the flip side, droughts also exacerbate sanitation challenges, creating breeding grounds for mosquitoes and other disease vectors. In either case, the consequences are dire, in many cases leading to increased child mortality, weakened immune systems, and stunted growth.

Moreover, these challenges disproportionately impact the most vulnerable. Women and girls face heightened risks due to limited access to safe sanitation facilities during menstruation and increased water collection burdens. Children’s health suffers the most, bearing the brunt of waterborne diseases. This adds another layer of injustice to the already unequal impact of climate change.

WASH prioritizes gender equity and recognizes that women and girls have specific hygiene requirements. It advocates for menstrual hygiene management facilities, promotes safe sanitation practices during menstruation, and addresses the challenges girls face in accessing sanitation facilities, especially during disasters. This inclusive approach fosters a sense of safety and dignity for all while contributing to positive community development.

Well, that’s all well and good, but there are people dying of hunger and disease in Pakistan. Shouldn’t we spend the money on them instead? I hear you and I say, the cost of inaction is far greater. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that inadequate WASH costs developing countries $260 billion annually in lost productivity and healthcare expenses.

By prioritizing WASH, we can not only save lives and promote health but also free up resources for other adaptation measures. But Mainstreaming WASH in Climate Action (SDG 13) requires a multi-pronged approach. First, climate-resilient WASH infrastructure must be built. This includes rainwater harvesting systems, flood-proof sanitation facilities, and drought-resistant water sources; some of these things are slowly being introduced in the policy landscape and some are being put into place by individuals on their own initiative.

Second, community-based WASH education is crucial. Equipping communities with knowledge of hygiene practices, water conservation, and disease prevention empowers them to adapt and thrive; this too is beginning to take hold across Pakistan through the work of various CSOs and some government institutions such as PDMAs and other local bodies.

Finally, gender-inclusive WASH programmes must be implemented, ensuring every individual has access to safe and dignified sanitation facilities. This is where we still need to put a bit more work but we’ll get there.

This is not a pipe dream. Organizations like Unicef, WaterAid, and IRC-WASH are demonstrating the effectiveness of integrated WASH-climate action programmes. The results are tangible: reduced disease outbreaks, improved child health, and empowered communities more resilient to climate shocks. The time for marginalizing WASH is over. Every drop of clean water, every safe toilet, every handwashing session becomes a bulwark against the climate crisis. Let us not build walls of indifference but bridges of resilience – bridges paved with soap, water, and sanitation.

By mainstreaming WASH into climate action, we can protect our health, empower communities, and build a future where everyone, regardless of circumstance, has the right to health, dignity, and a life free from fear of climate threats. Let’s not simply mitigate climate change; let’s wash it away, one handwashing act and one safe sanitation facility at a time.

The writer works as research associate at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI). He can be reached at: