Addressing climate risks for sanitation: Building from what we know

18 November 2020

Climate change has emerged as a leading concern in the sanitation sector. In a context where over 2 billion people still lack access to basic sanitation facilities, climate change is an added complexity that exposes and deepens existing inequities and vulnerabilities with sanitation access and use, and will continue to be a challenge for the foreseeable future. Therefore, on World Toilet Day 2020: Sustainable Sanitation and Climate Change, it is important to consider integrating climate related concerns in programming for sustainable sanitation for all.

Frequent climate hazards pose a major risk to toilet and sanitation infrastructure and facilities. They can damage and compromise toilets, containment systems and treatment facilities. These interferences create numerous opportunities for pathogens to thrive and exacerbate health and environmental vulnerabilities. Climate change is yet another component that sanitation practitioners need to account for to ensure that sanitation services are sustainable, safely managed across the service chain and equitable and accessible for everyone.

There are important factors to consider – how can we plan for all the vast, complex impacts of climate change within sanitation programming? And what should practitioners keep in mind to ensure continued sanitation and toilet access and use for everyone in the wake of climate impacts?

A forthcoming Frontiers of Sanitation issue on rural sanitation programming and climate change put together by the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney  and The Sanitation Learning Hub has identified the following principles to support local action in the sanitation sector. These principles reflect good practices as recommended in the climate change community-based adaptation literature (see references below) and have been modified to suit sanitation and hygiene programming needs.

  1. Recognize that climate change can be integrated in sanitation programming: Programming and services for climate change and sanitation do not have to start from scratch or be a new separate effort. Think about climate impacts within ongoing sanitation programming efforts (flooded paths to toilets, damage to latrine infrastructure, etc) and mobilise established channels and add to activities already taking place (ensuring frequent operation and maintenance practices, build capacity on retrofitting toilets etc.).
  2. Trust in practitioners’ experiences with local engagement: Many recommendations for addressing climate change (like identifying vulnerable people, strengthening local capacity to cope, accounting for varied experiences of impacts etc) are already accepted as good development and WASH practices. Recognise that practitioners regularly engage with ideas of risk (slippage, seasonal damage to infrastructure, reduced livelihood opportunities, etc.) and ensuring sustainable and equitable sanitation and hygiene outcomes. Therefore, they are already engaging with climate related concerns, albeit framed differently. Building on existing strengths and ways of working will help practitioners to tackle climate concerns more confidently.
  3. Lift up local knowledge and experiences: Local perceptions of risk will inform how different people understand climate impacts, frame this problem, respond to climate hazards, and prioritise their needs. Understand these perceptions and develop strong relationships with local people, institutions, and stakeholders. Interventions are more likely inclusive and equitable if they reflect the priorities and desires of local people, and if they have ownership over planning and implementation.
  4. Utilize opportunities to engage with practitioners in similar circumstances: Peer-to-peer learning amongst practitioners engaged in similar concerns (within and across sectors) is a major source of practical knowledge. For instance, practitioners already involved in programming for climate change in the water, livelihood, agriculture sectors can be a great source of experience and learning. This process can also help practitioners understand various past, present and future challenges and establish working relationships for more systematic efforts. Utilise existing networks, and create new ones, at various levels both formally and informally to collaborate, share and learn about different ideas that can be modified to suit local contexts.
  5. Understand the differentiation of local impacts and responses: Climate hazards impact people and communities in different ways. Their responses vary due to factors like their geographical location, seasonality, type of home and latrine, level of income, gender, age, capacity for mobility, and more. For instance, people with disabilities and older people can find it more challenging to access toilets when pathways get muddy and flooded by rains. Make effort to understand differential impacts and design interventions to support different needs.
  6. Build local relationships and engage stakeholders regionally and across the sector: A collaborative approach will draw on a variety of strengths to bolster adaptation efforts and sustain outcomes. Building trust and strong relationships will help stakeholders support each other while also ensuring that community priorities and needs are considered and represented in discussions and during decision making.
  7. Encourage and plan for regular reflection and learning processes:  Practitioners, community members and other stakeholders should regularly engage in reflection and assessment of ongoing challenges with climate impacts on toilet use and access and ways to adapt. This will build on existing efforts and consider various trade-offs during decision making (for example, a durable but expensive technology which may not be as easy to repair vs a latrine made of easily accessible materials that is more vulnerable to hazards). This can help create a culture of flexibility to help minimize climate risks.

The forthcoming Frontiers issue provides actionable ideas for how these principles can be put into practice. Climate change is a critical concern to address on our journey to achieve sustainable sanitation for all by 2030. Recognizing and managing climate risks and hazards can go a long way to alleviate potential uncertainty and distress and ensuring sustained, equitable access to sanitation for everyone.

Many thanks to Juliet Willetts for her support in writing this blog.


Reid, H., Alam, M., Berger, R., Cannon, T., Huq, S. and Milligan, A., 2009. Community-based adaptation to climate change: an overview. Participatory learning and action, 60(1), pp.11-33.

Dodman, David, and Diana Mitlin. “Challenges for community‐based adaptation: discovering the potential for transformation.” Journal of International Development 25, no. 5 (2013): 640-659.

Ayers, J. and Forsyth, T., 2009. Community-based adaptation to climate change. Environment: science and policy for sustainable development, 51(4), pp.22-31