The House of Lords is due to consider the following question for short debate:

Lord Boateng to ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of (1) the impact of climate change in the developing world on the provision of (a) water, and (b) sanitation, to the poor in affected urban settings, and (2) the appropriate development response.

At the time of writing, a date for the debate is yet to be scheduled.

How many people do not have access to clean water and sanitation?

Globally, one in three people do not have access to safe drinking water, two in five people do not have a basic hand-washing facility with soap and water, and more than 673 million people practice open defecation. A quarter of health facilities do not have basic water services. More than 80 percent of wastewater resulting from human activities is discharged into rivers or sea without any pollution removal.

Informal urban settlements in developing countries often have inadequate access to basic services and infrastructure such as water, sanitation and hygiene. In 2017, in urban areas eight out of ten people used safely managed drinking water services and nearly five out of ten people used safely managed sanitation services.

While there have been increases in provision of these services, they have not kept up with urban population growth. The number of people without access to at least basic services in urban areas has increased in sub-Saharan Africa and across the least-developed countries group since 2000.

Why does access to water and sanitation matter?

This lack of access to water and sanitation has negative health impacts. Every day nearly 1,000 children die because of preventable water and sanitation-related diarrheal diseases. In addition, handwashing is an important tool in reducing the spread of covid-19, and this cannot be achieved without adequate water.

Having to walk long distances to get water or find a place to defecate threatens the safety and attainment of women and girls. Women and girls are responsible for water collection in 80 percent of households without access to water on the premises. This can mean that girls do not have time to attend school and leaves them vulnerable to attack on the journey to and from the water source. In addition, finding a place to go to the toilet outside, often having to wait until the cover of darkness, can leave women and girls vulnerable to abuse and sexual assault.

How does climate change impact water and sanitation?

Climate change affects the pattern of rainfall, leading to both more droughts and more floods. Greenhous gas emissions have caused the earth’s lower atmosphere to become warmer and wetter, making extreme weather events such as storms and heavy rainfall more likely. It also increases the intensity of heat waves, leading to more water evaporation from land and more intense droughts. According to United Nations (UN) Water, twenty of the world’s river basins are experiencing rapid changes in the area covered by surface waters, indicative of flooding and drought events.

Both too much and not enough rain can have negative impacts on access to water and sanitation in the developing world. Increased demand for water because of low rainfall can cause water sources to run dry. Heavy rainfall and flooding can damage water sources and sanitation facilities, carry runoff and waste into streams and lakes, and contaminate the water supply.

Monitoring agencies predict increased climate change effects in the future. UNICEF, the UN agency that focuses on children, states that climate change will have its most direct impact on child survival through changing disease environments, greater food insecurity, and threats to water and sanitation. UNICEF predicts that increased numbers of people living in water stress will lead to increased malnutrition and disease, and cites World Health Organisation figures that “climate change could cause more than 316,000 additional annual deaths related to diarrhoeal diseases by 2050”.

How can water and sanitation facilities be made more resilient to the effects of climate change?

There are some ways in which water and sanitation facilities can adapt to the impacts of climate change. An article in the Nature journal ‘Clean Water’ concludes that interventions to date have largely focused on changes to infrastructure. For example, pit latrines can be raised or otherwise adapted to be able to withstand floods and reduce contamination if they collapse. Ensuring that stormwater does not mix with wastewater can reduce risks related to overflows or damage to collection and treatment infrastructure. In water-scarce regions, water-saving and reuse-oriented sanitation technologies with lower dependence on water supply can be more resilient than existing facilities. However, the authors note that measures focusing on knowledge and systems, such as improved planning and public awareness, have received less attention.

What is the UK Government doing to improve access to water and sanitation in developing countries?

Successive governments have executed programmes which increase access to water and sanitation in developing countries. “Ensuring access to water and sanitation for all” is the sixth of the sustainable development goals, which the Government states are “fully embedded in planned activity of each government department”. The former Department for International Development, which has now been merged with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, stated that between 2015 and 2019 its work supported 51.8 million people to access clean water and/or better sanitation. One of the ways in which the Government has done this is by contributing funding to the work of the UK-based organisation Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor, which is chaired by Lord Boateng.

As a result of the predicted negative impact on the UK economy of covid-19, the Government reduced its planned aid spending from 0.7% of gross national income (GNI) in 2020 to 0.5% in 2021. This was announced by the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, in the November 2020 spending review. In July 2021, the Chancellor stated that to restore the 0.7% target, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) must show that “on a sustainable basis” the country is not borrowing for day-to-day spending and the ratio of underlying debt to gross domestic product is falling. In the autumn 2021 budget, the Government stated that the OBR predicts these requirements will be met in 2024/25.

The overall reduction in UK aid spending will have an effect on spending on water and sanitation. In April 2021, the media reported that a leaked government memo stated that funding for water, sanitation and hygiene bilateral projects would be cut by more than 80%. In response to a parliamentary question asked in October 2021 about planned government aid spending on water and sanitation, Minister for Europe and Americas Wendy Morton said that statistics on bilateral spending are published retrospectively. Mutli-lateral spending is not broken down by sector.

People working in the sector have criticised the proposed spending cuts. In evidence to the House of Commons International Development Committee, representatives of the UK Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Network argued that the spending reductions would harm recipients and the UK itself:

During the pandemic, this decision to halt support for water, hygiene and basic health maintenance is not just unethical, but risks the UK’s global reputation and a domino effect where basic services for the poor are deprioritised globally. It is also an act of self-harm to the UK, given that ‘no one is safe from covid, until we are all safe’.

The Government has highlighted that it will continue to support water and sanitation projects, stating:

The UK supports the Sanitation and Water for All (SWA) partnership to help national governments increase access to water, sanitation and hygiene services (WASH); we fund the WHO-UNICEF hosted Joint Monitoring Programme which tracks progress against water and sanitation global targets; and we support the Global Water Partnership to promote climate resilient WASH and water governance.

In addition, we have incorporated our direct WASH funding to the World Health Organisation into the new flexible core voluntary contribution package, which supports a number of important global health objectives including WASH. UK contributions to multilateral development banks (including the World Bank and Asia and Africa regional development banks) also supports the water, sanitation, and hygiene work of these multilateral organisations.

Cover image by Joshua Lanzarini on Unsplash.