A woman cleans pots at a water pump outside a flood-proofed toilet block in Bihar, India. Photo: SEI

It is widely recognized that sanitation is fundamental to human health and sustainable development. Less attention has been given to the role of sanitation systems in climate mitigation and adaptation.

Meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) target of universal access to “adequate and equitable” sanitation and elimination of open defecation will require not only expanding provision to the 2.3 billion people who today lack even a basic sanitation service, but also adapting many existing sanitation systems to new challenges from climate change, such as flooding and water scarcity.

Doing this has important but often overlooked implications for climate policy. The sanitation and wastewater sector is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions, particularly from the breakdown of organic matter and also due to the large energy inputs demanded by many conventional treatment processes.

At the same time, a range of options are available to reduce the negative climate impacts from sanitation and make services more resilient. Sanitation services can also contribute to climate response, for example through recovery of resources such as water, plant nutrients and energy.

This perspective article discusses gaps in how sanitation is being addressed in climate mitigation and adaptation, why it is rarely included in climate policy and financing at the global level, and implications of these gaps for different sanitation systems and geographic regions.

Finally, it describes the need for planning frameworks to facilitate integration of climate change into sanitation policy and programming. This will be critical to increasing understanding of sanitation and climate change linkages among stakeholders, and more effectively including sanitation in climate action.