Protect the infrastructure: climate proofing water and sanitation systems

Themes: Behaviour change Climate change Faecal sludge management Health impact Hygiene Non-revenue water Public/shared toilets Sanitation Sewerage Utilities WASH Water
Countries: Bangladesh Bangladesh-local Kenya Kenya-local Madagascar Madagascar-local Mozambique Mozambique-local Zambia Zambia-local

This is the second blog in a series exploring recommendations from WSUP’s new report, The missing link in climate adaptation, released ahead of COP26. Read the full report here:

Recommendation two: Protect the infrastructure

When Hurricane Sandy struck the United States back in 2013, the wastewater systems were overwhelmed causing over 10 billion gallons of sewage to gush into rivers and waterways, and exposing the inadequacy of the region’s existing infrastructure. The damage ran into billions of dollars for the city of New York alone.

If that was the reality for one of the world’s richest nations, how can countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia for whom climate change has been the reality for many years, even cope?

An ever-changing climate and the resulting extreme weather events mean that the existing water and sanitation systems are becoming outdated and unable to withstand such shocks, presenting a direct threat to those relying on the services that these systems provide.

Most cities in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia already struggle to deliver equitable access to clean water and safe sanitation and the impacts of climate change is only making it worse.

Protecting against disasters

Mozambique was hit by two cyclones in 2019, Kenneth and Idai, and both had devastating impacts on water and sanitation. In Beira, during Cyclone Idai, parts of the water system were severely damaged and were out of action for a week due to power loss. With only 10% of the city connected to the sewer system, communities relying on basic sanitation like pit latrines saw raw sewage mix with the floodwaters, posing a huge public health risk.

To protect the city from such future disasters and to ensure residents have access to basic services, the utility FIPAG with the support from WSUP introduced more climate-resilient construction standards such as using high-quality HDPE PE100 pipes in the water network extension, repairing water tanks and providing training to staff and small-scale operators on how to manage, operate and maintain the piped network.

Extending the water network in Beira, Mozambique

For Serviço Autónomo de Saneamento da Beira (SASB), the sanitation authority in the city, the priority is now to ensure that the 90% who are not connected to the sewer network have access to infrastructure that can withstand flooding as well as improved waste collection services to help reduce drainage blockages and the subsequent risk of contamination from overwhelmed infrastructure.

Watch how Beira is rebuilding

Managing droughts

We borrow water from nature to use for our daily needs and if we don’t return that water responsibly, we will limit our future access to water. In drought hit areas like southern Zambia, drilling boreholes to access new water is not an easy choice given that groundwater is a precious resource that is extremely hard to replace.

Utilities providing access to water services need to assess all parts of their operations to enable effective management of infrastructure and ensure that climate resilience is integrated. And that is exactly what Southern Water & Sanitation Company (SWSCO), the utility responsible for providing water in the region are doing.

Using WSUP’s Utility Strengthening Framework, it has prioritised several urgent projects to build climate resiliency, such as improving non-sewered sanitation services which will reduce contamination of groundwater – an important task given that surface water is becoming more unreliable. In addition, the utility is reducing water leaks across the network as well as increasing revenue collection efficiency to enable income generation for maintenance of the infrastructure to prevent such leaks.

Download the report – Building resilience to climate change: experiences from Southern Zambia

Reducing flood risk

In areas prone to frequent flooding, residents who rely on poorly designed sanitation systems are at risk of exposure to diseases such as diarrhoea and cholera. This is the case in the informal settlement of Mukuru in Nairobi, one of the biggest slums in Kenya where regular flooding causes floodwaters to mix with sanitation waste which then submerges streets and enters people’s houses.

An integrated effort of drainage improvement and the introduction of simplified sewers by Nairobi City Water & Sewerage Company (NCWSC) currently trialled in this settlement aims to reduce the risk of contamination from increasing floods by containing waste and channelling it to the main sewer line. Not only that, but it also uses much less water compared to traditional sewered sanitation systems, which is crucial to ensuring that every drop of water is saved.

To protect communal infrastructure against the impact of heavy rain caused by cyclones in Madagascar, the utility JIRAMA with the support of WSUP, is developing climate-resilient WASH infrastructure such as ensuring that the facilities are raised above the ground and not located in flood-prone areas. In addition, they are introducing overhead storage tanks at water kiosks to ensure water availability, and by fixing leaks in the water network and managing its resources effectively, the utility is ensuring that the poorest residents do not run out of water when there are droughts.

Watch: Building climate resilient services in Madagascar

In Bangladesh, one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change, the majority of urban sanitation systems like septic tanks aren’t connected to a sewer. Given that most of these systems are located at the lowest elevation possible, they are highly sensitive to sea-level rise, storm surge or flooding which limit their effectiveness.

The regular emptying of septic tanks via SWEEP – a sanitation waste service that was set up by WSUP – helps prevent septic tanks from flooding and contaminating the environment.

Ensuring durability through behaviour change

In overcrowded urban slums residents rely on WASH facilities that are shared between several families. As climate change forces more people to move to cities, the sustainability of these facilities is at stake. In 2020, 400,000 people migrated to Dhaka from other parts of Bangladesh due to effects of climate change such as sea level rise and flooding.

To ensure that WASH facilities don’t get degraded by families not used to living in cramped urban spaces, WSUP has found that targeted hygiene behaviour change communication and awareness campaigns can help ensure communal facilities are used in a manner that will prolong the durability of the infrastructure and safety to the families accessing these services.

Hygiene messaging at a communal sanitation block in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Credit: Yellow Rose

These are just a few examples of how service providers are working to accommodate rapid urbanisation in an unpredictable climate. There is still a lot more to be done.

Cities must work within their resources and recognise that climate change is not a threat of the future but is happening now and finding ways to improve people’s access to clean water and sanitation and protect nature is vital.

Top image: A refurbished sanitation block in a school in Madagascar. Credit: Tsilavo Rapiera