Climate justice begins with the human right to water

The UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) could not be more urgent or timely. The health of our planet and our very survival are at stake. How can we ensure that this meeting achieves real action that improves people’s lives in rich and poor countries alike? 

More than empty political rhetoric, what we need is a new social contract between decision-makers and people, one that achieves genuine mass support for climate action and connects people with their planet. Leaders need to ensure that their climate action plans will tackle inequality, poverty, injustice, and promote the implementation of human rights above all. 

After all, climate change threatens the enjoyment of a range of human rights, including food, health, housing, culture and development.  And there is one human right in particular that is at risk from climate change and could have a domino effect on all the others: the human right to clean drinking water. This is the most basic of all human rights (together with sanitation), and a key one in the fight against climate change.

Ninety percent of climate change is happening through weather-related events, which have a profound impact on the hydrological cycle – often resulting in too much water or too little water.  All this in a world where two-billion people, or one in four, lack access to safe drinking water, nearly half the world’s population (3.6-billion people) don’t have adequate sanitation, and 2.3-billion people can’t wash their hands at home for lack of water or soap. 

The most outrageous injustice is that the same people who lack access to water and sanitation are usually the ones most vulnerable to the effects of climate change — and the least responsible for causing it in the first place. One report estimates that by 2040, almost 600-million children are projected to be living in areas of extremely high water stress. And the odds are against the most vulnerable, as under 1% of the billions pledged to address climate change goes to protect water services for poor communities. 

In the end, those left furthest behind end up bearing the brunt of increasing water scarcity and poverty. These marginalised populations – women, children, and those living in extreme poverty — face a vicious and unjust cycle, in which a lack of access to water and sanitation is aggravated by extreme weather events, leading to more expensive, and unaffordable, services. 

Connecting the dots     

But where the problem starts may also be where the solution begins. We need a radical approach that guarantees the human right to water by tackling inequalities and putting people’s needs front and centre – especially the needs of those whose voices continue to be marginalised and disregarded. This is both a necessary response, and a step toward ending the climate change crisis, as it offers benefits both for mitigation (stopping climate change) and adaptation (adjusting to the new normal).

The good news is that the solutions are well known and readily available. Well-managed water systems can protect access to reliable water supplies during times of drought. Strong sanitation systems can resist floods. And protecting water and sanitation services from extreme weather is highly cost-effective — for every $1 spent upgrading flood-resistant infrastructure, $62 is saved in flood restoration costs. 

If world leaders were to prioritise universal access to climate-resilient water and sanitation infrastructure, it would be a long-term investment, yielding net benefits of $37-to-86-billion per year and avoiding up to six-billion cases of diarrhoea and 12-billion cases of parasitic worms, with significant implications for child health and nutrition over the next twenty years.     

Just add water

As we look to COP26, we need to ensure that climate decision-makers understand the adaptation needs and mitigation opportunities of water and sanitation systems, as well as the risks that climate change poses to sustainable services. They must additionally align climate and water policies so that access to water is equitable, climate risks are reduced, and there is more money available for adaptation.

After all, ensuring effective climate action and sustainable access to water and sanitation are matters of human rights. This means that we must tackle the root causes of the water crisis globally and ensure prioritisation of water for the realisation of human rights, over other uses, such as large-scale agriculture and industries, including extractive industries. To realise these rights, municipalities and villages also must be supported to improve their capacity to manage their water sources sustainably and efficiently.

Without urgent measures to slow climate change and adapt to the damage already done to our planet, there is a real risk that people’s access to water and sanitation will worsen rather than improve. Without sanitation, we cannot guarantee the right to education; without hygiene, our health is diminished; and without reliable access to water, gender equality can never be achieved.

COP26 is an opportunity for a reset, not only for the planet, but also for the social contract between governments and people. Eliminating inequalities, including in access to water and sanitation, is a foundational requirement for effective climate action. We hope that decision-makers in Glasgow are champions for this vision of a better world.

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Kumi Naidoo
Kumi Naidoo is Sanitation and Water for All Global Leader, and Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy.

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