WASH and the Climate Crisis: Navigating Sustainable Solutions for a Resilient Future
There’s no way around it: our planet is warming. This past July was the hottest month on record. The urgent and serious problem of human-caused climate change means we are seeing more frequent and severe heatwaves, storms, floods, and wildfires. Sea levels are rising, threatening coastal areas. Ecosystems, biodiversity, agriculture, and human health are all affected.
The WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) sector is deeply intertwined with the climate crisis, as both influence and affect each other. At Splash, our current initiative, Project WISE (WASH in Schools for Everyone), focuses on WASH in schools, providing kids with access to clean water, sanitation facilities, and building good hygiene practices. These essential components relate to the climate crisis in various ways:
Hygiene Promotion and Climate Resilience
Hygiene practices are essential for preventing the transmission of diseases, especially during times of increased vulnerability due to climate change. A recent study in Addis Ababa by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found a 17% decrease in respiratory disease transmission in schools where Splash implemented hygiene programs compared with schools where Splash was not yet active. Additionally, the study found that kids at Splash schools 22% were more likely to wash their hands after using the toilet. Proper handwashing, food handling, and sanitation practices protect public health and enhance community resilience to the impacts of climate-related health challenges.
Community Empowerment and Climate Advocacy
WASH programs often involve community engagement and empowerment. By integrating climate-related education and awareness into WASH initiatives, communities can become more informed advocates for climate action and sustainable practices.
We understand the importance of consistently and comprehensively connecting our work with the real-life experiences of the communities we serve. That’s why Splash doesn’t start any projects without local partners and government buy-in. To date, local governments have committed $11.4 million toward improving WASH in schools through Splash.
In Phase I of Project WISE, we learned that government funding is crucial to success, but complicated to secure and maneuver. As we enter Phase II of Project WISE in 2024, we will devote more time and resources to advocacy and coordination with local governments. Splash was even asked by the Addis Ababa municipal government to play a stronger coordinating role between bureaus going forward.
Integrating WASH advocacy with climate advocacy can create a more holistic and sustainable approach to addressing interconnected challenges. By recognizing the interdependencies between water, sanitation, and climate issues, governments can develop more effective policies and interventions that benefit both human well-being and the environment.
Water Availability and Quality
Climate change impacts water availability and quality. Changes in water cycles can lead to droughts and floods and exacerbate the spread of waterborne illnesses. More than 90% of deaths from these illnesses are in kids and youth.
Kids like Zeke often bear the greatest burden and are most at risk from lack of access to clean water. Zeke is 16 and wants to be a civil engineer. At his school, he says “there was only one [water] station, and the area was muddy, which made it difficult to use. So many students wanted to use this single water station during break time. On top of this, water was not always available on most school days.” Splash began working with his school and now provides enough water stations to serve more than 3,500 students. Zeke also joined his school’s Hygiene Club and enjoys sharing what he’s learned with his family and friends.
At Splash, we are creating citywide WASH solutions designed to reach children living in low-income communities in some of the world’s largest cities. In collaboration with local partners, we install commercial-grade water filtration systems and water storage solutions in all public schools across the cities in which we work.
Sanitation and Waste Management
Inadequate sanitation and waste management systems can contaminate local water sources. Proper sanitation infrastructure, along with improved waste management practices, can help minimize pollution and public health risks during extreme weather events.
We work in partnership with municipal governments to upgrade or build child-friendly toilets and handwashing stations at local schools. School staff learn how to fix and maintain these facilities so they can keep serving kids for years to come.
Rural to Urban Migration
Every week, three million people move from rural areas to urban centers in search of better economic opportunities, improved living conditions, and access to basic services. This migration pattern has implications for the climate crisis by increasing energy consumption and emissions, generating more waste (especially in areas where city services are unable to keep up with rising populations and needs), and increased water demand from both households and industries. This results in inadequate infrastructure — especially in the most vulnerable areas — leaving these communities more susceptible to the consequences of climate change.
Splash operates in schools in large, growing cities like Addis Ababa (where currently, only 47% of water demand is met, according to this 2021 UN report) and Bahir Dar in Ethiopia, and Kolkata, India and plans to expand to more countries in East Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East in the coming years. Amid rapid population growth in cities in these regions, we believe there is an incredible opportunity to make a real difference in people’s lives and well-being.
We are creating a scalable urban WASH model by starting with schools, the access point for creating long-term community change. Schools are already serving vulnerable populations, and kids not only build lifelong healthy habits, but they bring their knowledge home and amplify it into their community.
Ensuring access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene is vital for building climate resilience, protecting public health, and reducing the vulnerability of communities to climate-related challenges. Integrating climate considerations into WASH programs and promoting sustainable practices can lead to a more resilient and healthier future for communities worldwide, even in the face of a changing climate.