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Bridging the climate-water gap: insights from F. Tunhuma, UNICEF expert on climate resilient WASH

  • Bridging the climate-water gap: insights from F. Tunhuma, UNICEF expert on climate resilient WASH
    © UNICEF/UNI410458/Brown

In recent years, the discourse surrounding climate change conferences has increasingly integrated water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) issues. As the global community grapples with the escalating impacts of climate variability and extreme weather events, the intrinsic link between climate change and essential water services has become increasingly evident.

Smart Water Magazine had the opportunity to interview Farai Tunhuma, Senior Advisor on Water and Climate Resilient WASH at UNICEF. After participating in COP28 last December, she shares her experiences, perspectives, and aspirations for integrating climate action with the WASH, disaster risk reduction, and sustainable development agendas.

Question: Can you tell us briefly about your career path and current role at UNICEF?

Answer: I trained as a civil and water engineer and started my career working directly with communities, particularly in eastern Zimbabwe. Though cyclones and drought hit these areas hard, we focused on addressing the immediate water and irrigation infrastructure damage instead of discussing climate change. During this period, I developed a passion for water and gained an understanding of climate change.

Since then, I've worked in different aspects of the water sector, from strategic infrastructure planning, climate adaptation and resilience building, and resource mobilisation to policy research and development, and capacity building for water institutions.

In my role at UNICEF, I support teams in implementing climate-resilient water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services and improving the delivery of water-related services. I closely collaborate with partners, UNICEF teams, and governments to make the WASH sector more environmentally friendly and resilient to climate change. We do this by making linkages between global processes like COP and other UN water-related initiatives and developing guidance for country teams to scale up quickly and implement climate-resilient WASH services.

Q: The links between climate and water are increasingly more recognised. What did you wish to see happen in this regard at the past UN Climate Conference?

A: Climate change is felt through water – whether it is too much, too little or too polluted. Every region of the world, including high-income countries, faces challenges related to water scarcity or lack of access to clean water. UNICEF’s latest analysis shows that 1 in 3 children – or 739 million worldwide – already live in areas exposed to severe water scarcity. Moreover, 648 million children (2.2. billion people) lack access to safely managed drinking water, and 1 billion children (3.5 billion people) lack safely managed sanitation in their homes.

Connecting climate science with the water sector requires investing in data and early warning systems

COP28 is a critical point in the fight against the climate crisis and for children’s rights and well-being. Climate change is expected to worsen the world’s water and sanitation problems over the coming decades, which makes it even more important to acknowledge the daily realities of communities without access to sustainable and resilient WASH services and other social services. We’re seeing climate-resilient WASH services become a crucial part of the global climate discussion, with over 130 countries acknowledging the role of water and sanitation for adaptation and sanitation contributions to the mitigation agenda.

Q: Water is an essential component of climate adaptation and mitigation action, but it receives less than 3% of all climate finance, most of it for adaptation. What changes are necessary to create an environment that enables increased investment in climate finance for water-related issues?

A: To achieve water security for all children by 2030, we must invest in resilient water and sanitation services that endure crises. This requires united global efforts, collaboration, and mobilising resources on an unprecedented scale.

Climate finance is a critical part of this process: only 3% of climate finance is allocated to water, and this covers different facets of water, including water resources, hydropower and dam-related projects, and this does not go towards climate-resilient WASH services.

Many barriers limit access to climate finance, including policy issues and the enabling environment. Water and sanitation are often absent from national adaptation plans, Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), and sectoral policies. This is even weaker when we look at implementation mechanisms and their real value for communities. Connecting climate science with the water sector requires investing in data and early warning systems, which are essential for developing the climate rationale in climate finance proposals.

We must enhance local and national capacities for quality project development. Climate efforts demand collaboration across academia, government, civil society, and business and a focus on policy development, implementation and service delivery. This needs a new way of working to achieve resilience fully:

  • Focus on the poorest, most climate-vulnerable and marginalised communities, including children, women, displaced populations, and persons with disabilities.  
  • Build capacity within the WASH sector, including government, NGOs, the private sector, and communities, focusing on knowledge and skills to turn climate ideas into action.
  • Strengthen systems and governance with policies and regulatory bodies prioritising and protecting water services, especially in highly water-vulnerable areas.

Q: What are the barriers to integrating water into climate action at the international and national levels?

A: In addition to some of the barriers already mentioned, some climate policies do not emphasise key social sectors, such as water and sanitation, and are not linked to sectoral strategies where implementation is expected to happen.

Sectoral practitioners and climate experts are also not well-connected. The challenge is that sectoral practitioners may not have access to the knowledge of climate science necessary to prepare for future climate scenarios. This connection is crucial for developing infrastructure and services that can withstand the impacts of climate change.

To tackle climate change, we need everyone to work together locally. The problem is that there's not enough money for all the needed actions at the local level. As a result, these actions either don't happen or take too long to show the benefits.

Q: How do you see the intersection between climate finance and Disaster Risk Reduction concerning water, and what strategies do you think are essential for effectively integrating these two components?

A: Climate change is not a threat in the distant future but a present-day emergency that is already threatening lives, livelihoods, and economies. The global climate crisis drives more frequent and intense floods, heatwaves, droughts, and storms. These extreme weather events have quintupled in the last fifty years, with projections that climate-related disasters could reach up to 560 annually (or 1.5 per day) by 2030.

These climate shocks affect food-insecure people disproportionately, destroying crops, livestock, and vital infrastructure. Each year, the humanitarian sector and governments spend billions to prepare for, respond to, and help people recover from increasingly destructive climate-related disasters.

Efforts to provide more timely assistance to vulnerable populations and better informed and forward-looking approaches to crisis management are urgently required

For slow-onset events, such as droughts, assistance reaches people often months after crops have failed and livestock are lost and when many households have already resorted to negative coping strategies. Efforts to provide more timely assistance to vulnerable populations and better informed and forward-looking approaches to crisis management are urgently required.

Investments in disaster risk reduction activities at the community level, anticipatory action before a forecasted extreme weather event or its immediate impacts materialise, and early action immediately after a hazard hit can reduce humanitarian response needs and costs, mitigates impacts on lives and livelihoods, and provides a more dignified approach to humanitarian assistance. At UNICEF, we use mechanisms such as climate finance with GEF, AF and GCF, as well as our traditional resources and partnerships to ensure that we are responsive to fast and slow-onset disasters.

UNICEF staff members Maida Pasic (left), Johanna Cunningham (centre) and Farai Tunhuma during a panel discussion at the UNICEF NextGen Global Summit in Copenhagen, Denmark. © UNICEF/UNI409241/Brown.

We also have parametric insurance-related initiatives such as the Today & Tomorrow Initiative (T&T). The initiative seeks to close that gap by creating a new climate financing mechanism that invests in current risk reduction and climate resilience while using parametric insurance — or disaster risk transfer, provided by the insurance market — to protect children against future climate shocks. The goal now is to raise additional capital from these climate-related funds and partnerships to catalyse additional resources, and expand the program to cover more countries and other types of climate hazards, such as drought, flooding, and heat waves.

Q: How can climate finance be optimised to address immediate WASH needs and build long-term resilience to climate change and disasters?

A: Water and sanitation are critical services as they impact the major facets of life, including health, nutrition, and education – which is why we have programmes to provide WASH in schools and health care facilities. We see communities rallying around water supplies, such as in the Horn of Africa, where water points we develop are used for drinking, livestock, and agriculture. Water is central to achieving climate-resilient communities and ensuring that vulnerable communities can maintain their positive livelihoods.

Q: What would you like to highlight from COP28?

A: The water sector's commitment, showcased at the Water Pavilion, has been impressive. We've learned how to articulate climate resilience in our industry, evolving since the first pavilion at COP26 in Glasgow. This progress was evident in this year's GGA discussions, with over 130 countries highlighting WASH as essential for adaptation. Ongoing talks in the sector also stress the importance of sanitation in mitigation efforts. Incorporating climate-resilient WASH in the GGA is a significant breakthrough, enabling the sector to set targets and metrics and accelerate investments in climate-resilient WASH.

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