EXCLUSIVE new research from WaterAid reveals that millions of people around the world living in poverty, have been experiencing a ‘climate hazard flip’ since the turn of the century. This comes at a pivotal moment, as world leaders prepare to meet in Dubai for COP28 in 2 weeks’ time.
Accompanied by powerful satellite imagery, the analysis of climate data released by WaterAid, and Cardiff and Bristol Universities finds that under a ‘whiplash’ of extreme climate pressures, areas that used to experience frequent droughts are now more prone to frequent flooding, while other regions historically prone to flooding now endure more frequent droughts – having a devastating effect on communities in these regions.
Over the last two decades, areas in Pakistan, Burkina Faso and Ghana – normally associated with hotter, drier conditions – have flipped to become increasingly wetter and flood-prone.
Communities exposed to these extremes are often ill-equipped to deal with them. WaterAid warns that failure to act on climate adaptation at COP28 could condemn people in the worst affected areas to entrenched poverty, displacement, disease and potentially even conflict, as issues leading to water and food scarcity are made worse by catastrophic and changeable climatic extremes.
Ewurabena Yanyi-Akofur, WaterAid Ghana, Country Director, said: “I implore everyone to recognise that the climate crisis is undeniably a water crisis. The alarming consequences of extreme weather events, such as droughts and floods, are pushing vulnerable communities in Ghana to the brink. Clean water, decent toilets, and good hygiene are our first line of defence against climate change, and we must act urgently.
“As we approach COP28, we cannot afford to delay any longer. It is time to integrate climate-resilient WASH services into Ghana’s national adaptation plans, invest in water resilience, and amplify the voices of those most affected. Together, we can ensure a more climate- resilient future for all.”
For communities living on the front line of these ‘climate hazard flips’, the consequences are devastating – wiping out crops and livelihoods, damaging often-fragile water supply infrastructure, disrupting water supply services, and exposing people to disease and death.
In Ghana, the study focused on the Galaka community in the Bawku West District of the Upper East region. The area shown to be highly variable, oscillating between wet and dry phases. Those areas show more irregular climates, demonstrating a tendency towards more flooding in Ghana.
Their fate is mostly determined by the arrival or absence of rainfall. Local residents like Safura Amadu, worry about water switching between concerns for either too much or too little.
“My biggest water concerns begin after January ends. That is when the lean season begins. One question stays on my mind: how do I find enough water to meet my family’s needs? That becomes my biggest headache”
She adds that “The rainy season begins in August and lasts about four months. The rest of the year is the dry season. It is such a stressful time because the water level drops, limiting our water supply—competition for water peaks between March and June.
“We compete for water for cooking, washing, drinking, and watering livestock. The lower water table means there is not even much to collect, and it takes longer. In the rainy season, it takes only an hour or so to collect all the water you need from the borehole, but in the dry season, you can wait from 6am to around 9am”.
As part of WaterAid’s work on climate adaptation in Galaka, Safura has been trained to monitor rainfall and ground water levels and share this information with her community and the district authorities. With her help, the people of Galaka adapt making efforts to adapt to climate change.
Inusah Ayendago, 34, on the other hand has to deal with the flipside of climate change, too much water. Wading through his flooded farm caused by too much rainfall exacerbated by the spillage of the Bagre Dam. He lost everything he planted.
He says: “The force of the rain washes the soil into the White Volta. The spillage of Burkina Faso’s Bagré Dam in August swept all my crops away. I could not harvest any of what I planted”. The erratic nature of rainfall pattern is making it hard for farmers like Inusha to know when to start planting their crops.
Information from Safura and the other volunteers help to guide Inusah but in the face of an ever-changing climate, Inusah adds that “knowing when to plant is a gamble now”.
Professor Michael Singer of the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Cardiff University, who led the research, warned these climatic phenomena are not just confined to these countries:
“Most dramatically, we found that many locations are undergoing major shifts in the prevailing climate. Specifically, many of our study sites have experienced a hazard flip from being drought-prone to flood-prone or vice versa.
“Although the scope of this study was limited to a handful of countries and specific locations within them, we believe the hazard flip and, more generally, changes to flood and drought hazard frequency and magnitude are something most places on the planet will have to address. “We have come to understand that climate change will not lead to a monolithic change to climatic hazards, despite globally increasing temperatures. Instead, the hazard profile for any region is likely to change in unpredictable ways. These factors must be considered to support climate adaptation for the lives and livelihoods of humans across the globe.”
From flood protection to drought resistance measures – adaptation solutions exist, but not enough is being done to prepare for this future. Scaling up and optimising water-related investments in low and middle-income countries will not only save lives, but it will also boost economic prosperity – with analysis suggesting it can deliver at least $500 billion a year in economic value.
WaterAid is calling on the Government of Ghana and its allied agencies to prioritise clean water, decent sanitation, and good hygiene as a key component to climate adaptation programmes as well as rapidly scale up in investment in water security in low- and middle-income countries.