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Climate-resilient water safety plans: Managing health risks associated with climate variability and change

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Executive summary

Long-term planning for an adequate and safe supply of drinking-water should be set in the context of growing external uncertainties arising from changes in the climate and environment. The water safety plan (WSP) process offers a systematic framework to manage these risks by considering the implications of climate variability and change.

This document is intended to help water suppliers and WSP teams who have already committed to using the WSP approach and are developing and implementing WSPs to gain greater understanding of climate change and how it can be considered and addressed in the WSP process. This document will also be useful to other stakeholders, particularly health and environment agencies who are supporting WSP implementation. It discusses how to take into consideration the broader issues of climate change, regional climate vulnerability assessments, disaster risk reduction and integrated water resources management within the WSP process. The details of how this is done for any particular WSP depend upon local circumstances.

The document identifies opportunities to enhance the WSP process and outcomes by considering the provision of safe water in sufficient quantity under changed future conditions and extreme weather events that may become more frequent and severe as the climate changes.

This guidance is aligned with the WSP modules as described in the World Health Organization/International Water Association Water safety plan manual. Therefore, this document is intended to be used in conjunction with the Water safety plan manual to ensure that climate change is considered as part of the WSP comprehensive risk assessment, management and continual improvement process.

The document presents the current state of knowledge on the impacts of climate change on the water cycle, drawing on information in the scientific literature, particularly the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report.

The document describes those modules of the Water safety plan manual where climate variability and change should be explicitly considered to ensure effective management of these risks through the WSP process. These modules are 1 (“Assemble the WSP team”), 2 (“Describe the water supply system”), 3–5 (“Identify hazards and hazardous events and assess the risks”, “Determine and validate control measures, reassess and prioritize the risks”, and “Develop, implement and maintain an improvement/upgrade plan”), 8 (“Prepare management procedures”) and 9 (“Develop supporting programmes”). Key activities to be undertaken to support inclusion of climate change-related risks are described below.

The WSP team should consider past climate-related events that negatively affected the water supply system and learn about climate projections that could impact hazards and risks for the water supply system in the future. As described in modules 1 and 2 (sections 5.1 and 5.2 of this document), WSP teams may need to draw on expertise and information from other parties, such as specialists in hydrology and climatology, to understand potential climate change impacts in the context of their water supply.

When identifying hazards, assessing risks and planning improvements, as described in modules 3–5 (sections 5.3 and 5.4 of this document), WSP teams need to take a broad view of the potential risks. Changes in the climate feed into changes in environmental and social systems, which can impact the nature of the hazards and exposures ordinarily considered and introduce new hazards. Both the likelihood and severity of the consequences arising from the hazard or hazardous event are likely to change due to climate variability and change.

Modules 8 and 9 (section 5.6 of this document) of the Water safety plan manual cover the development of management procedures and supporting programmes. At a broad level these modules include developing programmes to build the institutional and individual capacity of water suppliers to manage risks associated with water scarcity and reliability in addition to water quality risks. These programmes include management procedures, for example emergency response plans (such as flood or drought management plans). The programmes can be used to bring together stakeholders from different disciplines to support a more catchment-based and holistic approach to managing water resources, for more resilient water supplies.

When considering climate change, and seeking to adapt to the change and improve resilience to increased climatic variability, the WSP team may identify opportunities and practices to work in partnership with others and influence their plans and programmes where these relate to the scope and implementation of the WSP.

Additional sources of information, detailed case studies and examples are provided throughout the document and as annexes at the end.