A solar powered groundwater borehole system in arid Turkana, Kenya.

Keeping the Water Flowing: Mitigating Climate Risk in WASH Programming

An Interview with Evan Thomas and John Butterworth
By Brittany Ajroud, Patrick Nease

In arid regions with already unreliable water and sanitation services, climate change is a threat multiplier for those who rely on functional infrastructure for basic water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) needs. Unpredictable deluge may jeopardize this infrastructure by damage or pollutant runoff, while increased drought will threaten water access.

Emergent climate risks present a challenge for governments in drought-prone areas: make the systems that deliver water and sanitation services more resilient now, or deal with significant health consequences down the road.

Nonetheless, the momentum to address climate change presents an opportunity for WASH practitioners; new funding and activities focused on climate adaptation are driving pressure to try things differently. If governments underestimate the link between climate and water and sanitation services, these new activities will be a distraction to WASH practitioners. Alternatively, shared knowledge between the sectors and an appetite for innovative approaches can see sustainable, integrated results.

USAID is funding several activities in the arid regions of Ethiopia and Kenya aimed at tackling these challenges, including USAID Lowland WASH and the Kenya Resilient Arid Lands Partnership for Integrated Development (RAPID). Brittany Ajroud and Patrick Nease of Environmental Incentives sat down with John Butterworth, Director of IRC Ethiopia, with the USAID-funded Sustainable WASH Systems Learning Partnership, and Evan Thomas, Director of the University of Colorado Boulder’s Mortenson Center in Global Engineering, with the Kenya RAPID project, to learn more about mitigating climate risk in WASH programming.

By 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world's population could be living under water-stressed conditions, 80% of whom live in developing countries.

-Evan Thomas, PhD, PE, MPH

Director, Mortenson Center

Brittany Ajroud and Patrick Nease (BA & PN): What effects of climate change are you seeing in Ethiopia and Kenya?

John Butterworth (JB): We work in areas of Ethiopia with very dry and harsh climates, like the Afar and Somali regions. People living here are always vulnerable, but rainfall has been declining in recent years, while climate model projections suggest it should be rising. The 2016-2017 drought was a severe event in these areas, and all water sources except deep boreholes failed. The WASH cluster [the formal platform established by UNICEF for emergency WASH actors] coordination mechanism that brings together development partners and government is continually busy responding to water shortages. A lot of this response and investment involves emergency water trucking which is tremendously costly.

Evan Thomas (ET): Millions of people living in the arid, drought prone regions of the East African Rift Valley, including parts of Ethiopia and Kenya, are facing significant threat from a lack of safe, reliable, and affordable water. The 2011 drought in East Africa caused food shortages for over 10 million people and over 260,000 deaths. The more recent 2016 drought in Kenya resulted in over 3 million people facing food insecurity. These recent drought conditions represent an acute threat and highlight the urgency of environmental changes driving water shortage and creating a public health and security emergency.

BA & PN: What can we do to prepare communities, government, and other key stakeholders in the face of climate change threats?

JB: The focus of IRC is having decent WASH systems. By systems, we mean policies, people, and processes that provide these basic services and not just the pumps and pipes that we might also call WASH systems. Climate change would be much less of a problem if we were collectively good at providing WASH services in the most vulnerable areas. But we aren’t. That makes people highly vulnerable.

ET: The dry seasons in this region often result in drought emergencies, which highlights the importance of functional groundwater sources, as well as surface water retention efforts, including rainwater catchment. Yet maintaining functionality of groundwater boreholes and water access is an ongoing challenge.

National budget allocations and international donors have historically prioritized new water system installations in this region, with the assumption that local communities and regional governments will successfully manage operation, maintenance, and service delivery. However, the reality is that funding and accountability for service delivery falls short of meeting water demands, resulting in a high degree of water system failures. When these failures occur during dry seasons or drought conditions, negative consequences are exacerbated. The combination of drought conditions and preventable water system failures increases water stress and the costs of emergency drought response.

This underlines the significance of the operation and maintenance of borehole pumps as an imperative to maintain water access at the regional scale.


Women fetching water in South Ari Woreda, Ethiopia.

BA & PN: How are you integrating climate into your work?

JB: One recent exciting policy intervention is the Ethiopian Government’s “climate resilient WASH” initiative that is now a part of the overarching national WASH program. This involves a major surge of investment to the most at-risk lowland areas of the country, especially in “more resilient” engineering, such as deep boreholes and multi-village piped water schemes. However, while such investments might aim for resilience, resilience is not actually a given. Many motorized schemes that already exist are being used well below capacity and often inefficiently. Some multi-village piped schemes hardly function at all.

Our focus is on ensuring that these “climate resilient” solutions really work. That requires efforts to strengthen management, especially maintenance.

ET: Using satellite and cellular connected sensors, USAID Lowland WASH and its partners have supported Afar and Somali regions to monitor in near real-time the water supplies of over a million people in arid areas of Ethiopia. In 2019-2020, the project is focusing on strengthening the maintenance and wider asset management systems that rely on this data in an effort to improve water services and drought resilience.


Caption: Emergency water trucking is provided during droughts and when boreholes fail.

Additionally, these sensors and data can be linked to distributed weather data networks, such as the Trans-African HydroMeteorological Observatory and remote sensing-based forecasting models, such as FewsNET. Together, these tools can enable opportunities to improve drought resilience in East Africa.

Climate change would be much less of a problem if we were collectively good at providing WASH services in the most vulnerable areas. But we aren’t. That makes people highly vulnerable.

-John Butterworth
Director, IRC Ethiopia

BA & PN: What message would you give to the WASH community on the importance of building resilience to climate change?

JB: It is really important and perhaps the best opportunity we have at the moment to drive investment and performance in the WASH sector’s ability to reach people with the kind of services that the Sustainable Development Goals (and improved health) demand.

ET: By 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world's population could be living under water-stressed conditions, 80% of whom live in developing countries.

Water access is becoming increasingly challenging in many regions in the world that are, in many ways, the least equipped to adapt to these changes. The international and donor community should accept some responsibility for continued support of regions that are experiencing changes in water access caused by carbon emissions well outside of their control.

Ethiopia, Kenya
Strategic Objective
Integration, Mitigation
Carbon, Emissions, Climate Change Integration, Climate Risk Management, Health, Infrastructure, Mitigation, Resilience, Water and Sanitation, WASH

Brittany Ajroud

Brittany Ajroud is a Senior Associate at Environmental Incentives, a consulting firm that empowers public and private sector leaders to maximize their effectiveness to sustain healthy communities by using performance-driven tools and practices. She supports monitoring, evaluation, and learning processes for the Sustainable WASH Systems Learning Partnership (SWS).

Patrick Nease

Patrick Nease is a Communications Specialist at Environmental Incentives. He has a background supporting USAID-funded projects such as SWS, as well as non-profit experience from previous positions at Conservation International and World Resources Institute.

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