Climate change will strike water resources hard. By 2050, many countries simply won’t have enough water to meet their basic needs, and some are already struggling. In other cases, disasters like floods and landslides triggered by heavy rains will lead to contaminated drinking water and public health crises like cholera or typhoid outbreaks.

Sustainable sanitation has the potential to mitigate these impacts – and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the process, as well as boosting livelihoods, crop productivity and food security.

Sanitation: a solution multiplier

For most of us, “sanitation” means toilets, and not much more. But while low-flush, dry and composting toilets may have sustainability benefits under the right circumstances, at least as important is what happens next: Where does the waste go? Is it properly treated? And is its resource potential being put to productive use?

As the audience heard at an event about Sanitation and the Paris Agreement at World Water Week 2018, when it comes to the challenges of climate change and environmental protection, sustainable sanitation is a solution multiplier.

However, the opportunities it offers remain largely ignored – as evidenced by the nationally determined contribution (NDC) statements countries have already submitted under the Paris Agreement. The NDC-SDG Connections tool counts the climate-related activities mentioned in NDCs that relate to each of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Of the activities related to Goal 6 (Clean water and sanitation), a mere 2% deal with sanitation access , while wastewater management and water re-use are mentioned in 3%.

And this is not the only place where this blind spot is evident.

“There has been only one project on sanitation submitted to Green Climate Fund to date, and it was for $18 million, lower than any other,” said Alastair Morrison, Senior Water Sector Specialist at the Green Climate Fund, speaking at the event.

Morrison called on all those working on sustainable sanitation to be firmer and louder in talking up its climate benefits, especially when it comes to setting national climate priorities. “Many have a misconception that the GCF only offers grants, but actually the fund also provides loans and equity finance, which can be used for installing and running infrastructure,” he pointed out.

From Madaba to Montmartre

Experiences from Jordan and France, shared during the event, showcased the very context-specific possibilities and challenges for sustainable sanitation

Famously dry, Jordan expends a lot of energy on pumping water. Therefore, water resource efficiency and optimization are priorities. Jordan committed under the Paris Agreement to cut 14% of its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 – something that will require major international funding support. However, even with its limited resources, Jordan is working on a pilot project integrating renewable energy production with wastewater reuse.

In Paris, the impetus to overhaul the wastewater systems initially came from serious pollution of the Seine river. However, visionary planners saw the potential co-benefits of going beyond traditional treatment, and today almost half of the energy needs of the Greater Paris Sanitation Authority, SIAAP’s, wastewater treatment plants are met with energy generated from wastewater. SIAPP’s strategy includes integrating wastewater treatment plants with bio-digesters and heat recovery, along with hydropower from flood-control dams.

The SIAAP is also working on cementing partnerships with other sectors. One example is biogas production from a mixture of household organic waste and sewage sludge – two waste streams traditionally managed by different authorities. “It won’t work if the water sector continues stick to water; breaking the silos is our biggest challenge,” pointed out Jean-Didier Berthault, Vice-President of SIAAP.

Make it mainstream

These two examples are impactful and innovative, but they are also isolated – and still rare – cases.

“We need to scale up and replicate sustainable sanitation and step up communication of its climate-curbing potential!” said Henk Ovink, Special Envoy for International Water Affairs of the Netherlands, and Sherpa to the High-Level Panel on Water.

One major obstacle is changing engrained perceptions about sanitation: “We need to let everyone know that sanitation isn’t any longer a stinky business, but a high-tech forward-looking sector,” said Lara Nassar, Regional Coordinator for the Sustainable Sanitation Alliance (SuSanA) regional chapter in West Asia and North Africa.

But the overall message from the meeting was that sustainable sanitation is an investment that worth every penny – not just for climate mitigation and adaptation but also for human development and environmental health.

As Salam Almomany, adviser to the Water and Wastewater Companies for Climate Mitigation project in Jordan urged the international audience of sanitation practitioners and experts: “Don’t be afraid to be ambitious!”