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Climate change is making it even harder for people living in poverty to access clean water

WaterAid’s Sand Portrait on Whitby Beach to show how climate change is impacting people’s access to water and could make water perilously scarce for 1 in 4 children by 2040 | Credit: WaterAid/Jon Snow

Jonathan Farr, Senior Policy Analyst | WaterAid

3 min read Partner content

Two billion people around the world do not have access to a reliable and safe water supply - and climate change is making it even harder to cope. As we build back in a post-pandemic world, we have a moral duty to ensure that nobody is left behind

Two billion people around the world do not have access to a reliable and safe water supply, and climate change is making it even harder to cope. Extreme weather such as prolonged droughts dry up water sources, while rising sea levels and flooding contaminate poorly protected water supplies. 

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

Having access to a reliable source of water is a frontline defence against the impact of climate change. It means being able to drink clean water every day, whatever the weather. 

At present, however, less than 1% of total global climate investment goes to basic water infrastructure and services. 

Endless promises of billions of dollars have been made – for example, $100 billion per year was pledged as part of the UN Climate process in 2009 – but not delivered.

In addition, too much of the existing investment is being spent in wealthier countries, rather than providing basic services in poorer ones who are the most vulnerable to climate change. Of the 20 countries receiving the most climate funding for water programmes, 19 are middle-income.  

It is a matter of utmost urgency that we take steps to protect people in the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries. And in the year that Britain will host the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, and more immediately, the UN Climate Meetings on 31 March, WaterAid is calling on the UK to channel at least one third of its committed international climate budget to locally led adaptation projects that meet the needs of communities impacted by climate change.

These huge numbers and challenges can be hard to imagine, and so to highlight the huge impact that climate change is having on millions of people’s access to such a basic human right, WaterAid created a giant sand portrait on Whitby Beach ahead of World Water Day on 22 March.

The image of a child carrying water on dry, cracked ground reflects the impact of drought, while the incoming tide that will wash the fleeting art away conveys how rising sea levels and excess rainfall can lead to flooding, contaminating water and endangering lives.

It is a stark reminder that climate change is happening now and that those who have done the least to cause it are living with its most harsh consequences.  

The good news, though, is that access to a reliable and safe source of water is entirely possible. In most cases, with the right infrastructure, resource management and investment, there is water available to meet everyone’s domestic needs.

The Covid-19 crisis over the past year has shown that we can make huge changes to protect people in times of need. We must now draw on that same strength to ensure the next generations never need worry about something as fundamental as having clean water close to home.  

Jonathan Farr is Senior Policy Analyst for WaterAid, London, leading work on climate change and water scarcity 

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