Environment, Energy and Nature

Building climate risk strategies into sanitation programs: seven principles

4 min


Jeremy Kohlitz and Ruhil Iyer

In a world where more than two billion people still lack access to basic facilities for sanitation, climate change brings an added complication, deepening existing vulnerabilities and inequities in access to sanitation. This column explains the importance of integrating climate-related concerns into programming for sustainable sanitation for all, outlining seven principles of good practice.

Climate change is firmly positioned as a priority in the water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) sector, as evidenced by commitments from global development agencies including Sanitation and Water for All, UNICEF, and WaterAid.

It is not hard to see why: toilet facilities are susceptible to damage from climate hazards that are becoming increasingly extreme. For example, floods and heavy rains damage latrines and make them unsafe for use: flooded, muddy pathways make accessing toilets a challenge for older people, people with disabilities, and pregnant women.

Consequently, people in low- and middle-income countries may be forced to return to practicing open defecation, especially in rural areas. Furthermore, droughts and water scarce contexts may lead to reduced hygiene behavior, such as handwashing and managing menstrual health.

Accounting for the impacts of climate change in rural sanitation programs can feel overwhelming, especially when it is already so challenging to ensure that the most disadvantaged people can safely and comfortably access a toilet. Fortunately, there is much that sanitation programs are already well equipped to do.

Drawing on a comprehensive review of research on community-based adaptation, interviews with practitioners, evidence from previous work on sanitation and hygiene, and our recent research, we propose seven principles of good practice.

Recognize that climate change can be integrated into sanitation programming

Programming and services for climate change and sanitation do not have to start from scratch or be a new separate effort. The key is to think about climate effects within current sanitation programming efforts (such as addressing flooded paths to toilets, and damage to latrine infrastructure), to mobilize established channels, and to add to activities already taking place (including ensuring frequent operation and maintenance practices, and building capacity for retrofitting toilets).

Trust in practitioners’ experiences with local engagement

Many recommendations for addressing climate change (such as identifying vulnerable people, strengthening the local capacity to cope, and accounting for varied experiences of impacts) are already accepted as good development and WASH practices. It is important to recognize that practitioners regularly engage with ideas of risk (such as slippage or reversion to open defecation, seasonal damage to infrastructure, and reduced livelihood opportunities) to ensure sustainable and equitable sanitation and hygiene outcomes.

Practitioners already engage with climate-related concerns, albeit framed differently. Building on existing strengths and ways of working will help practitioners to tackle climate concerns more confidently.

Value and amplify local knowledge and experiences

Local perceptions of risk inform how different people understand climate impacts, and how they frame this problem, respond to climate hazards, and prioritize their needs. It is essential to understand these perceptions and to develop strong relationships with local people, institutions, and stakeholders.

Interventions are more likely to be inclusive and equitable if they reflect the priorities and desires of local people, and if those people have ownership over planning and implementation.

Use opportunities to engage with practitioners in similar circumstances

Peer-to-peer learning among practitioners engaged in similar concerns (within and across sectors) is a major source of practical knowledge. For example, practitioners already involved in programming for climate change in the water, livelihood, and agriculture sectors can be a great source of experience and learning.

This process can also help practitioners to understand various past, present, and future challenges, and to establish working relationships for more systematic efforts. Existing networks can be used and new ones created at various levels, both formally and informally, to collaborate, share, and learn about different ideas that can be modified to suit local contexts.

Understand differentiation among local impacts and responses

Climate hazards affect people and communities in different ways. Their responses vary due to factors such as their geographical location, seasonality, the type of home and latrine, income levels, gender, age, capacity for mobility, and more.

It is vital to make the effort to understand differential impacts and design interventions to support different needs.

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 and stay updated, while also ensuring that community priorities and needs are considered and represented in discussions and during decision-making.

Encourage and plan for regular reflection and learning processes

Practitioners, community members, and other stakeholders should regularly engage in reflection and assessment of challenges with climate impacts on toilet use and access, and ways to adapt.

This should build on existing efforts and consider various trade-offs during decision-making – for example, choosing between a durable but expensive technology that may not be as easy to repair versus a latrine made of easily accessible materials that are more vulnerable to hazards. Such discussions can help to create a culture of flexibility to help minimize climate risks.


Jeremy Kohlitz
WASH researcher, University of Technology Sydney
Ruhil Iyer
Research Officer, IDS