Water at the heart of climate solutions

4 min read

Ahead of Africa Climate Week, which begins in Nairobi on Monday (Sept 4), we bring together two experts from different parts of the continent to illustrate how water, sanitation and hygiene (known collectively as WASH) are central to many climate solutions. WASH issues lie at the core of most of the main themes which provide the focus for discussion during the week and which will form the basis of the continent’s main preparations for the key international climate negotiations at the COP28 conference in Dubai at the end of November.

Rita Nishimwe, from Rwanda and Zinérsio Sithoye, from Mozambique together looked at 4 main climate solutions being explored in their countries which could prove useful examples to others:

  1. Building climate-resilient infrastructures in African cities

“Climate-resilient infrastructure has saved lives and reduced the impact of natural disasters in Mozambique,” says Zinérsio.

He cites projects which aim to reduce the vulnerability of urban and peri-urban communities to impacts of climate change by restoring and protecting key ecosystems and the services they provide. They increase the capacity of vulnerable communities to adapt, restore and protect their own ecosystems.

“But for these to succeed they must involve all age groups and both genders and they need to develop decision-making tools to assist both local authorities and communities to sustain existing interventions and implement new ones. There should also be a database of best practices on these and other actions in Mozambique, such as a recent initiative between UN-Habitat and the Government of Mozambique.

“Strengthening institutional capacities and the legal framework for climate change in urban areas has been a key component in projects of this nature and helped provide a supportive environment for effective and climate-compatible urban development, including climate adaptation and disaster risk management actions. This project has acted as a catalyst to support capacity building and co-ordination nationally and locally in small and medium-scale cities which are highly vulnerable to extreme weather events.”

Rita continues: “Creating sustainable and resilient urban cities is a journey that centres on effective water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) solutions. With the rapid urbanization happening in Rwanda, it is necessary to ensure that the urban growth rate doesn’t outpace the capacity to provide adequate WASH services. There must be an alignment in Rwanda’s strategies for sustainable urbanization and WASH solutions.

Rwanda has updated its own self-defined national climate pledges (known as National Determined Contributions or NDCs) which will include upgrading high density buildings and informal settlements, integrating planning and monitoring sustainable land management. These interventions are necessary to ensure that the number of people living without access to basic WASH services doesn’t increase due to rapidly growing urban slums.

Another strategy is the Green Growth Climate Resilient Strategy which touches on creating smart and eco-friendly city infrastructure. The synergy between this strategy and WASH solutions ensures that infrastructure developments are ecologically responsible.

  1. Empowering women and girls

Zinérsio writes: “Inadequate water and sanitation lead to a higher incidence of infectious diseases, which in turn lead to higher maternal mortality rates and poorer reproductive health; in urban districts, where it takes a long time to collect water, women often perform this task to the detriment of income-generating activities, and girls to the detriment of education.

“Poor sanitation in schools further discourages girls from going to school, particularly during menstruation; and in community sanitation, women and girls may suffer from a lack of privacy and security when using facilities.

“These impacts highlight the need to improve urban WASH services in general, but also measures needed to make a specific service effective: unless issues such as privacy and security are addressed in the design of WASH facilities, women and girls will be reluctant to use them.

“It is critical that any organization implementing WASH adopts a gender inclusive approach. But what does this mean in practice? At community level, this means promoting relevant participation in the planning, design and structure of facilities to ensure ease of access and use; promoting women's leadership in the management, operation and maintenance of these services; and sensitizing men to the importance of gender issues.

“The expected impact of this approach extends beyond improved WASH services and aims to empower women as decision makers in the community and as members of the local workforce.”

Rita adds from Rwanda: “According to the Water and Sanitation Sector strategic plan 2018-2024, a gender-conscious WASH approach recognizes the significance of gender roles and family dynamics; it highlights that women, who are largely responsible for household water tasks, are disproportionately affected by water supply issues. Despite this, women still often lack representation in decision-making and management roles. Water interventions can enhance women's lives by improving living conditions and reducing their workload.

“Achieving gender equality involves addressing economic opportunities, decision-making parity, employment equity, and bridging knowledge needs through capacity building. This underscores social inclusion, ensuring safe water and sanitation for all, particularly vulnerable groups.

“The interconnection between WASH and various facets of community progress cannot be understated. Proper access to clean water and sanitation directly impacts public health, reducing the prevalence of waterborne diseases and enhancing overall quality of life.”

  1. Making water central to food production

Zinérsio writes: “Faced with the scenario of a serious climate crisis, the transition to sustainable agricultural development becomes increasingly necessary. Food and water are interdependent. Promoting proper water management in food systems is critical to ensuring food and nutrition security and environmental sustainability, as water is an essential resource for all stages of the food chain.

“It is necessary to guarantee access to potable water for human consumption, to increase the efficiency of the use of irrigation for food production and to value local and seasonal foods, which have less impact on water consumption in their production.

“The majority of the world's food-insecure people live in arid environments where water availability is restricted or in areas where water is plentiful but quality and access are often compromised. Environmental and climate crises exacerbate food and water insecurity. Without water there is no food security and therefore it is not possible to separate the fight for access to water from the fight against hunger and inequality.

“In Mozambique, some actions have been carried out aimed at helping the country to guarantee access to water resources, supporting agricultural production and food and nutritional security for family farmers and school children.”

Rita adds: “Insufficient WASH conditions can result in waterborne illnesses that not only jeopardize human health but also compromise the safety of food supplies. The incorporation of WASH practices ensures that water used for irrigation, cleaning, and food preparation adheres to high hygiene standards. This reduces the risk of contamination and enhances food security.

“Part of Rwanda’s NDC commitments have resulted in increased food security through enhanced soil fertility, increased crop stability and reduced soil erosion and cleaner water provision through reduced nutrient and soil runoff.

“Both water scarcity and quality have a direct influence on agricultural productivity. Through the implementation of sustainable WASH solutions, water resources are managed prudently to benefit both food production as well as the environment. Employing efficient practices like drip irrigation or rainwater harvesting not only increases agricultural yields but also contributes to conserving water while building resilience against climate-related challenges.

  1. Recognising the WASH ripple effect for economic prosperity

Rita writes: “The economic ramifications of inadequate WASH solutions extend beyond immediate health costs. Illnesses resulting from waterborne diseases can lead to reduced productivity, increased healthcare expenditures, and decreased educational attainment. Conversely, investing in WASH infrastructure generates a multiplier effect that ripples across various sectors.

“WASH investments lead to employment opportunities that arise from the construction, maintenance, and operation of WASH facilities, contributing to local economies. A healthier and more educated workforce is more productive, fostering economic growth. Moreover, improved WASH conditions attract foreign investment, as businesses value regions with reliable infrastructure and a skilled labour force.

Zinérsio adds from Mozambique: “There’s support from policy-makers for innovation and adaptation in the national economy to face the challenges of climate risks and natural disasters.

They also support the diversification of financial protection instruments against disasters, adjusted to the country's fiscal capacity and flexible to meet the need for quick access to liquidity. They encourage the private sector to become more actively involved in pursuing initiatives and partnerships for domestic disaster risk financing.

In this context, the government's current efforts to establish a National Disaster Management Fund and a Sovereign Fund, which are necessary for the protection of the population and infrastructure, are considered good practice.

Rita Nishimwe is the Climate Resilient WASH Hub lead, Rwanda Young Water Professionals.

Zinérsio Sithoye, Advocacy and Coordination Officer, National Platform of Civil Society Organizations on Climate change in Mozambique.

Written in association with WaterAid