The United Nations Convention on Climate Change (COP16) is drawing to an end and the world is still waiting for a binding agreement on climate policy. While there is still hope for an eventual deal on mitigation policies, it is time to recognize that climate change is already upon us and that additional budgets and adaptive solutions will be necessary to deal with the consequences.
Climate change increases the likelihood of extreme weather events and the resulting natural disasters. The floods in Pakistan that directly affected 20 million people this summer are a striking example. Yet, while the storms and floods make the headlines it is the after-effects that may take the greatest toil. In Pakistan, a widespread waterborne disease outbreak following the floods has so far been avoided, but the current situation in Haiti proves that sustained action must be taken in post-disaster areas to prevent the spread of disease. In October, ten months after the earthquake, cholera was detected in Haiti. As of December 4, the Haitian Ministry of Public Health & Population reported a total of 93,222 hospital visits and 2,120 deaths due to cholera. Waterborne diseases such as cholera will be one of the most significant risk factors resulting from climate-change disasters. Currently, 5000 children die a day from diarrhoeal diseases that are closely linked to lack of hygiene, clean water and proper management of human waste. In a changing world where extreme weather events destroy or compromise the functionality of our sanitation systems, these numbers are likely to be even higher.
Adapting to climate change means major changes in how vital systems, such as sanitation, in our society are managed. If major waterborne disease outbreaks as a result of climate change are to be avoided, many nations, especially in developing countries, will need support in adapting sanitation systems to manage the source of disease, wastewater. However, to date donor spending on sanitation and water is very low. Today, Sweden spends less than 2.5% of the state’s aid budget on sanitation and water, down from 5% several years ago. If we are to overcome the challenges of climate adaptation this figure will need to be higher. Similarly, technology innovation in the sector is low and today’s sanitation systems are generally inflexible, fixed infrastructures with little variation across the globe. In the future, we will need flexible technical solutions that can be implemented quickly in post-disaster areas or adapt to prolonged droughts.
There are opportunities for Swedish actors to support this change, both by lobbying for better sanitation policy and funding, and through the development of innovative and adaptive sanitation solutions. The initiative of Peepoople (collaboration SLU and KTH) is one example of Swedish researchers testing the limits of traditional sanitation services and offering possibilities to sterilize human waste in a fast and infrastructure-free manner. More work is needed to make sanitation systems more flexible to varying water flows resulting from climate change. Other adaption possibilities include coupling sanitation systems to the energy grid (biogas) or decoupling the centralized system to smaller treatment centres during crisis periods. Climate change may be the opportunity we have been waiting for to finally take our pioneering ideas for new sanitation systems off the shelf and put them into reality. The world is waiting.
by Jennifer McConville, Chalmers