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Climate change risks flushing away global progress on sanitation

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*Researchers call for urgent action to adapt sanitation programmes for climate change *

Increasingly frequent, extreme weather events linked to climate change are causing devastation to toilets, water supplies, waste systems and treatment facilities, threatening the health of some of the poorest people in the world. In response to this crisis, researchers from the Sanitation Learning Hub have published a new report providing evidence and practical guidance for adapting projects to make them sustainable for the future.

Over two billion people still lack access to basic sanitation facilities which can allow disease to thrive and damage the health of those young and old. With the Covid-19 pandemic reminding how essential good hygiene and clean water is, and when COP26 has bought climate to the fore, 'Rural sanitation and climate change: Putting ideas into practice' puts a spotlight on the importance of factoring climate change impacts into sanitation, especially in vulnerable rural areas in countries such as Indonesia, Chad and the Solomon Islands.

The report collates experiences of local people in multiple sanitation programmes and provides case studies with practical guidance for those working on sanitation projects. Highlighting how sanitation in rural areas of South Asia and Africa is already being affected by climate change, a practitioner reflecting on the impacts of climate change she has witnessed said: "Now within a shorter time span, there is heavy rainfall... it creates a sort of landslide and the toilet is not close by home... during this time they are not able to access the toilet facilities. That is a challenge for people with disabilities. (KII, South Asia)

A sanitation project worker described the knock-on impacts that climate change impacts can have on good sanitation: "We have schools in many rural areas... when there's no water or flooding causes [toilet] facilities to collapse, the kids go back to open defecation... [in addition] Infrastructure are buried under sand during a sandstorm... (KII, North Africa)

The report authors found that climate hazards impact rural sanitation in many ways but, to-date, the sanitation sector has produced inadequate guidance for action at a local level. Based on their research they call for a greater collective commitment from sanitation programme funders and practitioners to address the urgent challenges posed by climate change to local communities.

Ruhil Iyer, Research Officer at the Institute of Development Studies, and co-author of the new Sanitation Learning Hub report, said: "Climate change is an urgent and complex issue that exposes and deepens existing inequities and barriers to sanitation access and use. We've received reports of toilets being submerged under sandstorms in North Africa, and of floods damaging toilets. This can cause a lot of problems, especially for people with mobility problems and who need to access toilets in places where floods are rampant and frequent.

"There needs to be a much greater commitment from all those working on sanitation projects to address local climate change impacts, listen to local community needs and work collaboratively to find the best adaptation methods to ensure sanitation services are sustainable, equitable and accessible for everyone."

Jeremy Kohlitz, researcher at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, and co-author of the new Sanitation Learning Hub report, said: "The detrimental impacts we're now seeing on sanitation is often a confluence of direct climate change, local environmental degradation and poorly functioning water supplies.

"In the shorter-term we're seeing more frequent heavy rainfalls cause flooding of septic tanks and an increase of dry-spells causing water shortages for flushing toilets or cleaning hands. In the future we're also going to see longer-term impacts due to rising sea levels and coastal erosion, leading to huge strains on sanitation for displaced people, and it's something that funders and those working in the sanitation sector need to prepare for."

The full publication 'Rural sanitation and climate change: Putting ideas into practice' is available to download from the Sanitation Learning Hub website.

Notes to Editor

  • The Sanitation Learning Hub (SLH) is a programme based at the Institute of Development Studies aimed at promoting & facilitating timely, relevant and actionable learning and research in the Sanitation and Hygiene sector. It provides support to the sector to tackle the complex challenges it faces in delivering Global Goal 6.2 by 2030. It is funded by Sida.
  • The Institute of Development Studies (IDS) delivers world-class research, learning and teaching that transforms the knowledge, action and leadership needed for more equitable and sustainable development globally.

  • IDS is ranked first in the world for development studies by the QS University Rankings, together with the University of Sussex. We are also ranked best international development policy think tank. See ids.ac.uk for more information.