Getting sanitation back on the (global) agenda

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Despite the proven impact and interrelationship between sanitation and climate change, sanitation is still not part of the climate conversation. It must be, not only to ensure the resilience of the infrastructure, communities, and ecosystems that we depend on in the face of a global climate emergency, but also to harness effective and under-utilized greenhouse gas mitigation possibilities and build the resilience of communities by providing them access to safe sanitation services.

This year marks the critical halfway point to the finish line of many of our current global development goals and 2030 agendas, including Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG6) "Water and Sanitation for All." Concerningly, over the past seven years we have seen SDG6, and sanitation in particular, being neglected in global and national climate policy and practice, resulting in stagnating progress and lack of resources and attention to this "cornerstone" SDG. 

We will not achieve SDG6, nor any of the interrelated national and international goals that are intrinsically linked to water and sanitation for all, without getting sanitation firmly on the global agenda and back on track.  

Sanitation is not only about toilets

Globally, two out of every five people still lack safely managed sanitation 1. This is defined as sanitation facilities that are not shared with other households and where excreta are safely disposed of in situ or transported and treated off-site. However, sanitation is not only about toilets and safe disposal of excreta, even though these are sorely lacking in many communities and households. Critically, it is also about managing increasing levels of sanitation-related pollution in our waterways, which is magnified through ever-increasing climate-related hazards, such as flooding and sea-level rise. 

The impact is not only limited to humans. Entire ecosystems and other species suffer as a result of our inadequate sanitation systems

• Wetlands and coastal areas including coral reefs are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of poorly managed sanitation, affecting the communities and ecosystems on which they, and we all, depend. If our waterways do not thrive, we cannot thrive.

Unmanaged sanitation is not only a contributor to poor health outcomes and the spread of diseases such as cholera, it is a major contributor to the climate crisis.  Wastewater treatment is estimated to contribute at least 5% of global methane emissions2 and there is emerging evidence that this may be an underestimate. These emissions largely stem from anaerobic digestion in pit latrines and septic tanks that are not frequently emptied, and from wastewater treatment plants lacking methane capture. Actively and safely managed sanitation can reduce these emissions.

An evidence-based call to action

The Climate Resilient Sanitation Coalition (CRSC), formed in 2022, launched a Sanitation Call to Action last year at COP27. The CRSC is a growing coalition of international organizations, global research organizations and practitioners in the fields of water and sanitation. Among its members are UNICEF, the World Bank, the World Health Organization, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and many other research institutions and funds. 

The messages from the Coalition are evidence-based and clear, directed at influencing national and global policy, investment and planning relating to water and sanitation and climate-resilient development.

1. Climate-resilient sanitation must be integrated into global and national climate policy and practice, and equally, climate resilience must be integrated into all sanitation investments and infrastructure.  

2. Sanitation’s contribution to emissions is much more important than previously thought. More than 60% of the water supply and sanitation sector’s emissions are attributed to sanitation3. And while wastewater emissions have been predicted to contribute to around 5% of global methane emissions4, this is likely an under-representation, as a recent study5 showed high emissions from on-site systems, which are used extensively in low- and middle-income countries. This study showed that for Kampala, sanitation produced 189 kt CO2 equivalent per year and may represent more than half of total city-level emissions. 

3. In the face of climate breakdown, extreme weather events play havoc with (non-climate-resilient) sanitation systems. During flooding events, sewage is released into combined stormwater systems, pit latrines collapse, and faecal contamination spreads. During droughts, sewers block, and pour-flush toilets do not work.  

4. Actively managed sanitation improves climate resilience, while also reducing greenhouse emissions. There is no "magic bullet," but including active management of sanitation systems in policy and resourcing is an efficient and effective way of addressing both climate and resilience goals.

Sanitation can be a climate solution

The Climate-Resilient Sanitation Coalition calls for a narrative shift; instead of seeing sanitation as a climate problem, we must all see increased and sustained investment in climate-resilient sanitation as a climate solution  - because it is! It is a solution that has the power to both reduce emissions and increase the health, well-being, and resilience of communities and the ecosystems on which we all depend.

How can you take action?

1. Read our Sanitation Call to Action.

2. Include climate resilience in sanitation policies, plans, budgets and services and increase political commitments, particularly to the poorest and most climate-affected communities.

3. Incorporate climate-resilient sanitation into National Adaptation Plans, National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans, and Nationally Determined Contributions and strengthen the climate rationale for investment.

4. Strengthen government systems and capacities to provide climate-resilient sanitation services.

5. Invest in and improve the evidence base for effective adaptation and emissions reduction in climate-resilient sanitation.

6. Develop and implement affordable, innovative, climate-resilient sanitation technologies and service models.

Sign up for updates and resources from the CRSC

 


Footnotes:

[1] UNICEF Data, Progress on household drinking water, sanitation and hygiene 2000-2022: Special focus on gender,  WHO/UNICEF JMP 2023, July 2023. https://data.unicef.org/resources/jmp-report-2023/

[2] O Guttierez et al., Chapter 3: Mechanisms, source and factors that affect methane emissions, IWA Publishing, April 2022. https://doi.org/10.2166/9781789060461 

[3] Global Water Intelligence, Mapping Waters Carbon Footprint, GWI, November 2022. https://www.globalwaterintel.com/water-without-carbon

[4] Guttierez et al., 2022.

[5] J Johnson, F Zakaria, A.G Nkurunziza et al., Whole-system analysis reveals high greenhouse-gas emissions from citywide sanitation in Kampala, Uganda, Commun Earth Environ 3, 80, April 2022. https://doi.org/10.1038/s43247-022-00413-w

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