22/03/2017 09:42 GMT | Updated 22/03/2018 05:12 GMT

How Climate Change Threatens Progress To Reach Everyone, Everywhere With Water


A woman and her child on their way to collect clean water in the village of Nerculo, Niassa, Mozambique. WaterAid/ Panos/ Adam Patterson

World Water Day gives us a moment in the year to reflect on something we all take for granted - from the first glass of water in the morning, until the last splash on our faces at night.

For the past 11 World Water Days I have been chief executive of WaterAid, where we think about water - and sanitation and hygiene - every single day of the year, and are incensed that for too many people in the world, these human rights are still lacking, affecting health, women's empowerment and livelihoods.

For those of us in the UK, water is rarely given much thought as we casually turn on our tap or flush our loo. Yet too many people in this world are still without these basics.

Aid has saved lives - but there's more to do

It is important to reflect on progress over the years and there is much to celebrate. When I began working at WaterAid in 2005, 995 million people in the world did not have access to clean drinking water; today, that number has decreased to 663 million.

More than 1 billion people have come out of extreme poverty in the last 25 years; the number of children under 5 dying from diarrhoea has decreased, from nearly 1.4 billion a year in 1990, to just under 500,000 25 years later.

Aid and development have saved lives. There is so much to be proud of.

However our work is far from complete, with 2.4 billion people still living without access to a decent, private toilet, and 315,000 little children still dying each year of preventable diarrhoea linked to dirty water, poor sanitation and poor hygiene. This really is not acceptable in 2017 and what is more, there are new challenges ahead which threaten progress.

This year to mark World Water Day, WaterAid has released 'Wild Water', a briefing looking at the impact of catastrophic weather events on rural populations living in poverty, where access to water is already difficult. We hear directly from people who are being affected by extreme weather.

It's not yet possible to measure the full impact of climate change. However we know it is always the poorest communities who are most affected by extremes and that as climate change threatens to make 'wild water' events more severe, the lives of the world's poorest are likely to become even more difficult.

The poorest are most affected

Flooding, drought and ruinous storms wipe out homes, fragile infrastructure and livelihoods.

WaterAid works alongside our partners to deliver sustainable water, sanitation and hygiene services to the world's poorest communities and helps them to become more resilient and to plan for times of catastrophe. Deep boreholes are more likely to keep supplying water in times of drought; well-built hygienic latrines are more likely to withstand natural disasters.We work to support government systems to deliver sustainable services and to plan ahead for emergencies to help communities prepare and avert the spread of disease following a crisis.

WaterAid is also working to encourage climate financing -- designated for helping countries adapt to their changing realities -- to focus on water and the world's poorest, where the impact of these extreme weather events is so devastating.


Julietta Chauque, 42, picks kakana, a drought-resistant plant in her garden in the village of Marien N'Goabi, Boane municipality, Mozambique. Severe drought in Southern Africa left millions hungry in 2016; it was followed by a severe storm season and flooding in Mozambique and Madagascar. WaterAid/Sam James

A few weeks ago I travelled to Mozambique, the country where I began my career in international development in 1989.

It, too, has seen progress; in 1990, when monitoring began, some 65% of Mozambicans did not have access to clean water and 90% did not have access to a decent, private toilet. Today, more than half have access to clean water, and the number without decent sanitation has dropped to below 80%.

However its people remain among some of the poorest in the world, and its vast development challenges are likely to be exacerbated in future years by climate change.

Drought, flooding and hunger

During this visit, we travelled 50 km from the bustling capital of Maputo, only to find families living close to the main road still dependent upon a water source which was two kilometres away from their homes. Women and girls were having to walk this distance twice a day to fill their jerry cans from an unsafe source.

My colleagues and I also took refuge during the torrential downpours that followed the arrival of tropical storm Dineo, which killed at least seven people in the country and brought heavy rains and wind of up to 160 km/h. An estimated 20,000 homes were destroyed, along with schools and healthcare facilities; some 130,000 people were directly affected.

It was another blow to a country not yet recovered from an El-Nino-triggered drought, which raised food prices and left hundreds of thousands hungry.

These vicious cycles of flood and drought affect the poorest most. Support to help these communities become more resilient through reliable water and sanitation services is critical.

Urgent challenges ahead

This is the last World Water Day I will mark as WaterAid's chief executive as after 11 wonderful years I am retiring. I'm so proud of all that has been accomplished.

WaterAid has grown from our beginnings as a small charity established by the commitment of the water industry in 1981 to today transforming the lives of millions of people in 37 countries around the world. We've reached 25 million people with safe water since 1981, and 24 million with sanitation since 2004. We've advocated for the poorest with governments and decision-makers around the world urging them to ensure access to water, sanitation and hygiene, as essential for health, prosperity and dignity.

But the challenges of today and those yet to come make the task ahead so much more urgent. Realising the promises of the UN Global Goals on Sustainable Development to end extreme poverty and deliver water and sanitation to everyone, everywhere by 2030 requires all of us to step up and get involved.


A student washes her hands at the taps and handwashing station at Mahubo 14 Primary School in Boane District, Mozambique. WaterAid/Sam James