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Clean Water Vital for Protecting Those on the Frontline of Climate Change in Post-Pandemic World

The writer is Senior Policy Analyst for WaterAid
The UN will be commemorating World Water Day on Monday March 22.

A woman in Madagascar walks for up to 14km a day to find clean water. Credit: UNICEF/Safidy Andrianantenain

LONDON, Mar 19 2021 (IPS) - For many, the last year will be remembered as the time our day-to-day lives screeched to a halt. As Covid-19 spread mercilessly across the world, wreaking havoc on health and livelihoods, world leaders, health experts and scientists grappled with how to protect populations and stem the tide of the virus.

It is right that attention has been focused on the immediate threat posed by the pandemic; the global death toll has surpassed 2.6 million people and we have suffered the worst decline in the global economy since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

But while coronavirus has consumed every aspect of our monotonous daily existence for the past year, as we build back, we have a moral responsibility to ensure nobody is left behind as we tackle an even bigger global crisis – climate change.

With our world warming at an alarming rate, it is becoming harder for the world’s poorest people to get clean water. WaterAid’s latest report: “Turn the tide: The state of the world’s water 2021” highlights how people are losing access to clean water and why it is a matter of utmost urgency that we take steps to protect people living in the most climate vulnerable countries of the world.

The 2.2 billion people who do not have a reliable and safe supply of water are without the most fundamental protection against climate change. Extreme weather such as prolonged droughts dry up water sources like springs and wells, while rising sea levels and flooding pollute poorly protected water supplies, threatening to put progress on bringing clean water to all back decades.

With no clean water to drink, cook or wash with, communities falter and people get sick – putting their lives and livelihoods at risk.

By 2040, the situation is predicted to be even worse, with climate change exacerbating the water crisis and helping to make water perilously scarce for 600 million children – that’s 1 in 4, and an increase of 20 per cent since 2010.

To highlight the impact climate change has on people’s access to water, WaterAid created a giant sand portrait on Whitby Beach in the UK ahead of World Water Day on 22 March. It showed an image of 12-year-old Ansha from Ethiopia carrying water on dry, cracked ground, reflecting the impact of drought, while the incoming tide that swept the fleeting art away shows how rising sea levels and excess rainfall can contaminate water.

It is a stark reminder that climate change is happening now and those who have done least to cause it are living with its consequences. Having a reliable source of water is a frontline defence; it means being able to drink clean water every day, whatever the weather.

Less than 1% of total global climate investment goes to basic water infrastructure and services. And whilst there have been endless promises of billions of dollars ($100 billion per year was pledged as part of the UN Climate process in 2009, which has not been delivered) too much is being spent in wealthier countries, rather than providing basic services in poorer communities to help protect against climate change and other threats.

Very few low-income countries are among the top recipients of public climate finance for water, despite being the most vulnerable to climate change. Of the 20 countries receiving the most climate funding for water programmes,19 are middle-income countries.

WaterAid is calling for change. On 31 March, the UK Government will host a virtual Climate and Development event to build momentum towards this year’s UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26). WaterAid is urging high income nations to significantly increase their climate finance for adaptation.

This includes fulfilling their previous commitments to give half of the total of climate adaptation finance to vulnerable communities to help them cope with the harsh reality of living with climate change.

The good news is that this is an entirely solvable problem. There is, in most cases, with the right infrastructure, resource management and investment, water available to meet everyone’s domestic needs.

The Covid crisis has shown what we can achieve to protect people in an emergency. We need to draw on that same strength to ensure the next generations never need worry about something as fundamental as having clean water close to home.

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