Mainstreaming Climate-Resilient Water and Sanitation Infrastructure For Long Lasting Impacts

17 Mar 2023
Dr Kriti Akansha

In this article, Manisha Jain and Dr Kriti Akansha highlight that it is necessary to support long-term thinking, transformation, flexibility and innovation while taking the associated climate risks into consideration to attain climate resilience. There is a need for a robust framework that ensures climate policies are integrated into all sectors and that planning, implementation, and evaluation are strictly followed.

Resilient Water

We have been witnessing unprecedented and increased cyclonic activities, erratic monsoons, extreme rainfall, severe heat waves, and other extreme weather-related events. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global temperatures are expected to rise by 1.5°C or more over the next 20 years. Globally, a 1°C increase in temperature is projected to reduce renewable water resources by 20 per cent, affecting an additional seven per cent of people.1 The impacts of climate change on the water supply, sewerage and sanitation infrastructure are long-lasting and irreversible. Climate-resilient water and sanitation infrastructure would help in not only achieving the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6, but also towards social equity, environmentally just and economically empowered society.

From water supply and sewerage infrastructure damage to water quality degradation and sewage spillage, the impacts of climate change are already being felt. India, with its large population and high levels of inequality, is projected by the IPCC as one of the most severely affected countries by climate change.2 Water demand will rise exponentially as a result of growing populations, expanding cities and increasing income, while supply will become more erratic and unpredictable. Some regions could lose up to 6 per cent of their GDP due to water scarcity and climate impacts. It is now more imperative than ever to plan and construct infrastructure that is robust and adaptable to changing climatic conditions. India’s water consumption is dominated by agriculture, cities, and industry through 2050 and beyond. Participatory planning, sustainable development, climate change mitigation, and Water-Energy-Food-Climate nexus integration are all essential for these sectors. 

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has stated that as a part of national climate action plans, 93 per cent of their focus is on water adaptation, and most efforts to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions depend on reliable access to water resources. Yet, until 2015, water management had been conspicuously absent from the climate change negotiations, and the Paris Agreement still overlooked water substantially. Only recently has water taken the centre stage in policy and planning discussions. There is now a significant and comprehensive focus on water-related issues (SDG6) with specific targets and indicators to track achievability.

Climate-resilient sources of water should be the focus of efforts. The stress should be on water infrastructure designed to resist and recover from catastrophic weather events, such as droughts and floods, as well as gradual changes in precipitation patterns and temperature. Ecosystems, governance, and decision-making systems may not always be able to predict significant changes due to erratic climatic conditions. In this context, it entails making wise decisions based on the understanding of the future rather than those based on stable ones. Resilience is a well-established idea, but as a practice, it is in its infancy and not commonly reflected in current policies or recommendations.

Water-Resilient Infrastructure in a Changing Climate

Water infrastructure networks will be affected by the physical impacts of climate variability and change. An analysis by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) in 2021 suggested that more than 75 per cent of Indian districts are extreme event hotspots. This means that building infrastructure without sufficient climate-proofing modules could contribute to the systemic collapse of our economy. Some water-related infrastructures that get impacted due to climate change are water storage systems, transmission/pipelines, sanitation systems, and water supply infrastructure, among others.

Water Storage

The effects of climate change could potentially be harmful to all forms of water storage. Lack of or inadequate groundwater recharge, shifting patterns of annual precipitation, and saltwater intrusion of aquifers are a few challenges to efficient water storage. It is possible that ponds, tanks, and reservoirs would not hold enough water to support agriculture or that they will sustain damage from more severe floods. Large dams could collapse catastrophically as a result of larger, more powerful floods. Climate change is likely to have an impact on the externalities produced by various water storage options. For instance, ponds, reservoirs, and water-storage tanks all serve as mosquito breeding grounds and contribute to the spread of vector-borne diseases such as malaria and waterborne illnesses. India being the most populated country in the world has a per capita storage capacity of 210 cubic metres, much lower than countries like China (1111 m3), Australia (4733 m3), and Turkey (1739 m3), among others. The planning, design, and operation of water-storage schemes must take into account such factors.3,4


Water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services are severely affected by climate change. Millions of people in developing nations are already dealing with a public health emergency as the world comes together to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. People are always at risk of several diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid, polio and other waterborne diseases, due to lack of access to clean water.

It is essential that healthcare institutions have enough access to climate-resilient and sustainable WASH services, given their critical role in managing disease outbreaks. The United Nations recognized that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realization of all human rights. The denial of this fundamental human right is a result of frequent droughts, floods, saltwater contamination, inadequate service management, weak governance, and environmental deterioration. Erratic weather patterns leading to flooding could result in the failure of sewage systems and possible contamination of nearby water supplies and the local environment. In several parts of the country, during drought spells, people use unimproved sources of drinking water, thereby causing negative health impacts. The sea level rise in the east coast of India and several parts of Bangladesh has witnessed increased groundwater salinity, which in turn has accentuated the local residents’ risk of health hazards such as high blood pressure and heart disease.5

Benefits and Opportunities from Climate-Resilient Infrastructure

Climate-resilient infrastructure is designed, operated, and planned in a way that accounts for, and adapts to changing climatic circumstances. It must tolerate, adapt, and quickly recover from disruptions brought on by these changing climatic conditions. The interplay of shifting climate hazards with exposure (the location of assets) and vulnerability (the propensity or predisposition to be negatively affected) determines the extent to which climate change translates into infrastructure risks,6 for example, the water infrastructure in the coastal region is predisposed to risks. Climate-resilient infrastructure incorporates elements such as disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation, mitigation, climate risk management, and sustainability in various ways, as discussed here.

Reduced risk of disaster

Implementing traditional disaster risk reduction strategies, such as “systematic attempts to identify and manage the causes of disasters, including by lowering risk exposure, reducing the vulnerability of people and property, managing land and the environment wisely, and enhancing readiness for unfavourable events,” is necessary for providing climate-resilient infrastructure. When it comes to managing environmental hazards, climate change adds more complicated dynamics and unpredictability.

Adaptation to climate change

The adaptation of current or intended infrastructure assets to changing average climatic conditions over the long term is a crucial component of the climate-resilient infrastructure. To protect people, investments, and economic activity, climate-resilient infrastructure comprises both projects to adapt existing infrastructure systems and assets to a changing environment, and those that are particularly designed to address climate change concerns, including coastal defence systems and early warning technologies.

Attaining sustainability

Climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction are combined under the umbrella of “climate risk management”. Hazard, susceptibility, and exposure are the traditional definitions of risk. The co-benefits that climate-resilient infrastructure seeks to attain also significantly advance social, environmental, and other sustainability goals. Climate resilience and sustainability are inherently compatible when viewed holistically in infrastructure construction because they both seek to identify the best possible solutions that maximize benefits across a variety of systemic issues.7

Mitigation of climate change

Climate change mitigation is sometimes grouped under the umbrella term of “climate resilience.” While concentrating on climate adaptation, climate-resilient infrastructure must also have reduced its negative environmental effects, such as carbon emissions and its role in climate change, a top priority. By designing infrastructure to capture stormwater, the effects of a sudden flood can be mitigated by diverting flood water into ponds, reservoirs, or groundwater percolation areas while also banking groundwater to provide a reserve for dry times.

Challenges in Making Infrastructure Resilient to Climate Change

Climate-resilient infrastructure must be able to withstand both chronic stressors and severe shocks, as well as all other types of climate and non-climate threats. An integral part of a systemic, resilience-based approach to risk management is a multi-hazard perspective. Infrastructure pathways focus mainly on climate hazards, which are particularly difficult because of their dynamic character, the level of uncertainty associated with them across time, and the complicated system in which they function. It is crucial to take into account both existing and potential future dangers that may arise during the operational life of infrastructure with regard to extreme fluctuation of temperatures, water scarcity, flooding (coastal, riverine, urban), wildfires, windstorms, snowstorms, landslides, and coastal erosion.
The construction and operation of climate-resilient new and existing infrastructure need to factor in important aspects, such as:

Policies and plans

Based on the understanding of climate risks, policies and programmes that are in line with common, systemic resilience goals are adopted in the very beginning. Strategies for coping with the impacts of climate change are developed as well as coordinated across government agencies that are directly involved. These provide a favourable environment to facilitate the co-creation of climate-resilient infrastructure in the future.

Funding and financing mechanisms

In this stage, a strategy for funding and financing climate-resilient infrastructure projects with appropriate funding and financing methods, including public and/or private funds, is devised. It presents an opportunity to encourage or mandate the consideration of climate resilience in project development and necessitates a change in the industry to facilitate this by taking into account both the longer-term benefits, including risk reduction, as well as the additional short-term costs of resilience approaches.8

Construction, operation, and maintenance

Contractors transform technical and contractual paperwork into tangible assets during construction. The supply and quality of building materials, as well as their means, methods, order, timeline, and overall quality control, are all under the contractor’s control. It is important to take precautions to make sure that resilience value is not diminished.

Infrastructure operators and owners, including the government, have the chance to incorporate climate resilience into the use of infrastructure by rethinking conventional approaches to emergency response, inspections, maintenance, and day-to-day operations to address the effects of climate change. A retrofit strategy to increase resilience is one such opportunity.9

End-of-life material management

Owners and operators have the possibility to maximize the utility of materials, components, and equipment as well as the space that an infrastructure asset occupies after it has reached the end of its useful life or when it has become outdated or redundant. While these efforts may not increase the infrastructure’s inherent resilience, they do support the overall resilience and well-being of society.

Conclusion: Short-term and long-term impacts of climate-resilient infrastructure

Building climate resilience, safeguarding health, and protecting lives through sustainable water management aids in preserving ecosystems and lowering carbon emissions from the transportation and treatment of water and sewage. It reduces the negative impacts of climate change. The short-term and long-term risk assessment of climate-resilient infrastructure is shown in Figure 2.

Short-term impacts of resilient infrastructure include the prevention of loss of human life as well as economic loss, maintenance of the progress made towards SDGs, and improved access to water. It is estimated that investing in climate-resilient/disaster-resilient infrastructure (CRI/DRI) can generate more than 650 jobs in India for every USD 1 million spent.10 In the long term, climate-resilient infrastructure will lead to the strengthening of public health systems, maintenance of cultural and ecosystem diversity, prevention of migration of ethnic communities, and sustainable sources of water.

With 50 per cent of the urban environment required by 2050 not having been built yet, there is huge potential and responsibility of global governments and urban planners to plan and execute climate change resilient infrastructure.11 The National Commission on Population in India has predicted that 38.6 per cent of Indians will be residing in urban areas by 2036, and some of India’s largest cities are low-lying coastal cities (such as Mumbai, Kolkata, and Chennai). Thus, future planning should focus on developing urban cities away from low-lying coastal areas. This can be easily taken care of by developing a climate-proof infrastructure index (CPII) that would identify chronic and acute risks, map critical vulnerabilities, and enumerate strategies to protect the built-in and planned infrastructure. It is necessary to support long-term thinking, transformation, flexibility and innovation while taking the associated climate risks into consideration to attain climate resilience. There is a need for a robust framework that ensures climate policies are integrated into all sectors and that planning, implementation, and evaluation are strictly followed.

Manisha Jain, Senior Research Associate, Mu Gamma Consultants and Dr Kriti Akansha, Consultant, Mu Gamma Consultants.

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Climate adaptation
Climate change
Climate equity
Climate vulnerability
Water management
Renewable energy application