Climate crisis means water crisis for many of the world’s poorest countries – Tim Wainwright

Type ‘climate change images’ into a popular internet search engine and you would be forgiven for believing that it was all about polar bears and empty barren landscapes.

Further down the page of search results, people start to appear, white-skinned and usually pointing at the horizon.

The real impact of climate change on the world’s poorest people is hidden from the headlines, a daily grind to survive and thrive against changing weather patterns, punctuated with more frequent catastrophes such as cyclones, floods and prolonged droughts.

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For most of these communities, climate change is experienced through water – too much or too little. Thanks to its expertise in climate change and water, as host nation of the crucial global climate conference, COP26, Scotland has an opportunity to show global leadership in 2021. Together we can help amplify the voices of those living with the consequences of climate change who are too often forgotten at international political get-togethers.

For millions of people across the world, the climate emergency is already here. It is unravelling development progress for the worlds most marginalised communities. That means in effect, people who were perhaps beginning to see a way out of generations of poverty, thwarted back into just trying to survive day by day. The prospect for their children and their children’s children is even more bleak.

WaterAid sees every day how climate change is making it even harder for people to get clean water. More frequent floods are polluting water sources. Longer droughts mean wells and springs are running dry. As a result, people get sick and can’t attend work or go to school. If you lose your water source then life goes on hold until you can find another, perhaps a bit further away or from somewhere that you know will make you and your family sick. Water is not an optional extra in life.

We have been acutely aware of this in the past year, as the COVID-19 pandemic has taken hold. We know that washing your hands with soap helps stop the spread of the virus, yet three quarters of people in poorer countries still don’t have anywhere to wash their hands at home.

Fetching water involves leaving the house and queuing with others until it is your turn to fill your jerrycan, putting you at risk of catching or transmitting the virus. If you do get sick, you likely still cannot access the standard of care you require, as half of all health care facilities in least developed countries lack basic water services. The health crisis has combined with the climate crisis, and communities are unable to protect themselves without sufficient access to basic water supply.

All too often, when we think of how to tackle the climate crisis, we think only of reducing our emissions. That is of course crucial because unless that happens urgently, the future becomes a lot scarier. However, we cannot forget that millions of people are already suffering the impacts of climate change.

If we are to protect the planet and its people from climate impacts, reducing emissions alone is not enough. The poorest cannot wait for net-zero 2045. They need urgent support now to put up the barricades against a crisis that they did not cause. Otherwise whatever lives and futures they manage to build up will be swept away, literally and metaphorically, by climate change.

One crucial way we can help communities keep going in the face of climate impacts is by making sure that they have a source of water that keeps pumping through flood, drought and natural disaster. With clean water people can stay alive and stay healthy. That means they can earn a living and go to school – and prepare themselves and their communities for an ever-changing future. When disaster strikes, they’ll have the resources to respond and recover. Making sure that no-one must worry about where they will find clean water tomorrow could be a beacon of hope for many, a concrete act that brings certainty and protection.

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In practical terms creating sustainable and climate resilient water sources could mean raising water pumps and toilets, so they withstand floods and don’t contaminate water. Storing rainwater in rooftop tanks or small reservoirs for times of drought. Or helping communities monitor water levels so they can prepare for shortages.

Beyond this it’s about ensuring people have the access to water they need to build locally-led resilience to climate change. Through it all, we’ll be pushing governments to invest in giving everyone the clean water they need, whatever the changing climate brings.

The Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2019 included welcome commitments to ensure that this global approach to climate was taken into account. That’s why it was disappointing that the recent Climate Change Plan Update published by the Scottish Government didn’t include new commitments on international climate change.

The Scottish Parliament elections in May are an opportunity to refresh Scotland’s offering to international development – to harness what Scotland knows best and share this with our partner countries of Malawi, Rwanda, Zambia and Pakistan.

This week alongside Water Witness we are launching a Water Manifesto: How Scotland Can Champion Change. This manifesto sets out recommendations to the next Scottish Government to increase its Climate Justice Fund to help the poorest combat the impacts of climate change, to take a policy coherence approach to water resources, and to use the opportunity of COP26 to stand-up for the global south.

The eyes of the world will be on Scotland at this conference, and it is a chance for the next Scottish Government to stand on the right side of history. Scotland is already far ahead of the pack on reducing emissions and known as a climate leader. By increasing its support to communities to adapt to the impacts of climate change, Scotland can also show leadership in building climate resilience, and stand in solidarity with people suffering the injustice of climate change.

Tim Wainwright is chief executive of WaterAid UK

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