Energy, Environment and Sustainability Group

Community resilience for water, sanitation and hygiene in small island developing states: ​Improving access to services and preparing for the future

Energy Environment and Sustainability Group

At 30% for sanitation and 53% for drinking water, the Pacific population’s access is lower than any other region in the world. A Snapshot of Water and Sanitation in the Pacific, UNICEF, 2016.
At 30% for sanitation and 53% for drinking water, the Pacific population’s access is lower than any other region in the world. A Snapshot of Water and Sanitation in the Pacific, UNICEF, 2016.

Pacific islanders in Fiji and Vanuatu are very familiar with the loss and damage associated with climate change.

Within a period of eleven months, they experienced the full brunt of the two most powerful tropical cyclones1 on record with respect to measured wind speed in the South Pacific Ocean. Vanuatu was struck by Tropical Cyclone Pam in March 2015, with the most intense storm ever in the Southern Hemisphere Tropical Cyclone Winston, striking Fiji in February 2016. The damage was extensive, resulting in the deaths of 60 people, and a combined cost of almost $2 billion USD over the two countries. To put this in perspective, the GDP for Vanuatu in 2017 was estimated at $773 million USD.

If our global energy habits are the focus for mitigation, the way we use and manage our water must become the focus for adaptation
Policy Brief 5, Global Water Partnership, 2007

These devastating cyclones are only part of the increased struggles associated with climate change for small island developing states (SIDS). Rising temperatures, flooding, droughts, and rising sea levels will all have devastating impacts on water resources upon which island communities are depending for their lives and livelihoods. As changes in climate will be amplified in the water environment, access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) is increasingly at risk, as has been vividly demonstrated by Cyclones Pam and Winston.

A change in climate is felt through a change in water
Thirsting for a Future: Water and Children in a Changing Climate”, UNICEF, 2017

UNICEF’s latest publication “Thirsting for a Future: Water and Children in a Changing Climate"2 highlights the critical impact of climate change on the health of children felt through additional risks upon the provision of WASH services. Changes in the water cycle not only impact the amount of water available to children for drinking and general wellbeing, but impacts drinking water quality and limits options for adequate sanitation.

SIDS are particularly vulnerable to these risks due to already limited resources and lack of service provision, mostly in rural areas and remote outer islands. The WASH programme of UNICEF Pacific has been mainstreaming risk in their support to Pacific SIDS by increasing the resilience of communities to adapt to these changes whilst continuing to support increased access to basic water, sanitation and hygiene provision in the region. The ‘WASH Resilience approach’, which was initiated in Fiji and Vanuatu in the aftermath of the devastating tropical cyclones, focuses on the management capacity of the community and provision of appropriate knowledge and skills to prepare for and cope with disaster events; and adapt to the effects of climate change in combination with support models to improve WASH infrastructure to satisfy daily requirements in communities and at schools and health care facilities.

The programme looks to achieve this through provision of support to both national governments and community interventions. At the national level, UNICEF provides support for the development of national implementation plans (NIPs), and national information systems to improve resource provision and monitoring. For community level interventions, the Technical Assistance Programme (TAP) provides technical support and training to communities through Drinking Water Safety and Security Planning (DWSSP). This training not only provides communities with the knowledge and skills to better manage their water and sanitation systems, but also provides a needs assessment of required infrastructure to meet a community’s water security need. The completed DWSSP can then be used to apply to a Capital Assistance Programme (CAP) to provide necessary funding to communities that require infrastructure upgrades from limited existing resources. The approach has the dual benefit of improving the current water and sanitation system through increased management actions via the TAP, while building a solid foundation for future infrastructure improvements via the CAP by identifying, prioritizing, and treating existing risks.

The WASH Resilience programme aims to improve the following outcomes:

  1. Increase and improve community management (TAP) – The Pacific region has one of the most highly dispersed populations in the world with rural communities located on outer islands far away from capitals and with highly complex water governance due to a disconnect between traditional community and national administration practices and instruments. Management of resources are mostly undertaken at community level so appropriate investments must be made to enhance this capacity.
  2. Inclusion of risk in planning and management (NIP) – As shocks and climate change continuously stall the progress of WASH provision in the Pacific region, these effects must be considered and mitigated during interventions and support programmes. The WASH Resilience programme incorporates risk modelling to identify which communities are most at risk, focussing resource provision to those most in need, and undertake risk management of community water and wastewater systems through DWSSP.
  3. Increased resources for building resilient communities at scale (CAP) – Addressing the current and future challenges in terms of water supply and sanitation in the Pacific requires significant scaling up as the Pacific is lagging far behind other regions in the world[3]. This requires significant additional funding, which is becoming coincidentally increasingly available through bilateral partners and global funding windows to tackle climate change (e.g. the Green Climate Fund).

“It is far better to foresee even without certainty than not to foresee at all.”
(Henri Poincare in ‘The Foundations of Science’ - A pragmatic remark from one of the foundation builders of chaos theory)

UNICEF encouraged governments and humanitarian partners to adopt the DWSSP approach during cyclone recovery efforts in Vanuatu and Fiji in order to build back better, proving out the process with national governments now keen to see a scaling of the programme. The approach facilitated prioritization of actions and measures to assist those most in need and reach the most vulnerable. UNICEF Pacific is further aligning its programme to ensure communities get the support they need to adapt and achieve increased levels of resilience, as one of the most effective ways we can do that is by securing their access to safe water.


1 Both recorded as category 5 cyclones on the Saffir-Simpson scale.

2 Thirsting for a Future: Water and Children in a Changing Climate”, UNICEF, 2017

At 30% for sanitation and 53% for drinking water, the Pacific population’s access is lower than any other region in the world. A Snapshot of Water and Sanitation in the Pacific, UNICEF, 2016.

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