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Climate Change and Water System Change, in the Present Tense

Matt Damon and Gary White Discuss the Water Crisis

As we head into COP27, improving how people get water and flush waste is a climate issue for this very moment.

One of the strange things about life in our era has been hearing conversations about the climate catastrophe shift from future to present tense. The consequences of our carbon excesses are undeniably here, and people are feeling their full force through the water cycle – sometimes suddenly with floods and storms, sometimes relentlessly with absent rains and worsening water quality.

This is our crisis now, and the end is here for the systems that are failing to supply water and other fundamentals of life to vulnerable people. From the most high-minded leaders, to the most bottom-line-fixated corporate boards, to individual households watching the world change around them, we can all see that this isn’t working.

This is not the future

At Water.org, we work with microfinance institutions in 11 countries in the Global South so that people at the base of the economic pyramid can invest in their own water supply and sanitation solutions. We recently asked our partner lenders what climate issues they and their clients are experiencing right now. We heard from 65% of them about drought and declining rainfall; 64% reported floods; 32% reported severe storms; and 27% reported landslides.

Catastrophic climate change used to be science fiction, but now that it’s here it doesn’t feel very futuristic. On the contrary, for those of us who watch the world through indicators of human progress, we can see climate change threatening to turn the clock backwards and undo the gains that generations have worked for.

Water.org's Gary White and Matt Damon

Water.org’s Gary White and Matt Damon; Courtesy of Water.org

The IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report this year forcefully stated that “intensification of the hydrological cycle due to human-induced climate change is affecting physical aspects of water security, thereby exacerbating existing water-related vulnerabilities caused by other socioeconomic factors” – things like poverty, inequality, racism, and patriarchy.

For people who are connected to good water infrastructure, the consequences are expensive. For the hundreds of millions who unfairly lack access, the consequences can be deadly. They are bearing the costs in sickness and premature death.

This is not the past, either

We’re not really turning back the clock to historic conditions of thirst, disease, and open sewers. Because now we all know what’s happening; we can react and prepare. We’ve seen the power of this knowledge at the highest levels of COP, and at every level, right to the individual household. Certain water supply and sanitation solutions are better for our chaotic conditions – more resilient, to use the buzzword of our age. And when people get to choose their own improvements to invest in, they are choosing climate resilience.

This is our crisis now, and the end is here for the systems that are failing to supply water and other fundamentals of life to vulnerable people.

We can see this in data from Water.org partners in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Many households are using microloans so they can stop relying on unimproved water sources like unprotected wells, open lakes and streams, which are associated with very low climate resilience. They are upgrading to household connections with water utilities, which provide higher service levels (though still vulnerable to floods and droughts), or deep protected wells and storage tanks (highly resilient options). Although there are many reasons a piped connection is better than a distant stream, 33% of borrowers say that their choices are directly influenced by climate change impacts they’ve experienced.

There’s a similar story with sanitation microloans, where 18% of borrowers say that experiences of climate change guide their choices. Microfinance has enabled millions of households to shift away from open defecation and shared toilets, which has alleviated the spread of waste and disease during heavy rains and floods.

Finding the leaks

Woman gathering water

Courtesy of Water.org

These choices also have consequences for mitigating climate change as a whole, which, despite the turn toward resilience, is still the essential task of our generation.

When human waste decomposes in the open, it releases methane – which is far more damaging to the atmosphere than CO2, ton for ton. Because of this the world’s waste and wastewater have a greater climate effect than all the cars in the United States. Well-designed treatment can fix it, whether in a water treatment plant or in a septic tank or pit latrine.

But this isn’t even the big issue with water systems. More of their carbon footprint is in the energy used to power them. Mostly, this means pumping water from where it is to where it’s needed – and when we’re talking about the needs of a whole city, water is really, really heavy. Too much of the infrastructure that does this is inadequate, inefficient, and old, and climate change combined with unprecedented global urbanization is stretching it to the breaking point. How bad is it? Utilities in the Global South are losing 35% of their water to leaks. In the realm of carbon accounting, this is a footprint without a benefit; it is pure loss.

Climate finance you can drink

Water.org has been helping households build water and sanitation resilience on their own terms and has already mobilized $4 billion into microfinance that’s accessible to people at the base of the economic pyramid. Meanwhile, we can’t ignore the systems that those households are connecting to. So, this year Water.org has launched a Water and Climate Initiative to drive investment toward infrastructural work by water utilities and service providers around the world. This will give utilities access to capital they need to upgrade infrastructure – whether that means finding and fixing leaks, or much more ambitious changes to their systems.

Water.org has launched a Water and Climate Initiative to drive investment toward infrastructural work by water utilities and service providers around the world.

When more communities have functioning, efficient water and sanitation systems, then these systems will be ready to react and adapt when catastrophe strikes, like many utilities do quite well in the United States. But we don’t want to reproduce global inequities with infrastructure that only serves the wealthy. It needs to fully serve the base of the economic pyramid, which can happen when top-down investments in utilities meet household-level investments enabled by microfinance.

Indian woman in field

Courtesy of Water.org

Climate finance will be high on the agenda at COP27, and when it is, I’d like you to think about it in these very grounded terms of storage tanks and leaky pipes. Investment in resilient, efficient and low-emissions infrastructure, and investment in household access to these systems, is all climate finance. It’s not climate finance for a distant future of sci-fi solutions, but climate finance for the reality people are living with, right now.

Academy Award winner Matt Damon is an actor, screenwriter, producer and humanitarian, who has garnered international acclaim for his work both on- and off-screen. Inspired during international travel with his family throughout Mexico and Guatemala as a youth, Matt has long been devoted to environmental and social issues. Learning about ... Read more
Gary White is an observer, an innovator, and a passionate problem-solver. He has created solutions that have empowered millions of people in need with access to safe water and sanitation. Gary is the CEO and Co-founder of Water.org and WaterEquity, nonprofit organizations dedicated to empowering people in the developing world ... Read more
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