Sanitation in the water cycle

Sanitation in the water cycle

On World Toilet Day we at the IWC want to bring attention to sanitation and its influence on the water cycle because the influence of sanitation on local water systems is not always well-considered or well-managed.

Sanitation in the water cycle

Sanitation and water security in Pacific Island countries

Sanitation and water security are both significant challenges for Pacific Island countries (PICs); here we explore some challenges around sanitation in Pacific Island countries and understanding the role of sanitation in the water cycle.

Pacific Island countries face numerous challenges in achieving the Sustainable Development Goal of all people being able to use sustainable water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services and products. The isolated nature of these islands, paired with small, rural and remote populations, difficult topography and high costs to access markets and supply chains, makes it difficult, as well as costly, to build and maintain infrastructure, such as sanitation facilities.

Poor sanitation can have significant impacts on local water security because the design of sanitation facilities and systems do not always properly consider their impact upon the water cycle. Sanitation with poor, or no, containment and treatment of human waste can reduce the quality of local water resources, and depending upon the sanitation technologies being used, can use significant quantities of local water, which is sometimes scarce.

The growing risks associated with climate change will continue to intensify the challenges in providing safe sanitation in these locations. The impacts of climate change on WASH relate not only to the provision and quality of water, but also to the pressure on sanitation infrastructure from extreme events like flooding and cyclones, and indirectly, to demographic changes due to displacement and rapid urbanisation of informal settlements, which already struggle to deliver sanitation services.

Sanitation and SDG6 in the Pacific

According to the Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) data, in Oceania the use of improved sanitation facilities slightly declined between 1990 and 2012, being the only region to show no improvements towards the sanitation Millennium Development Goal (MDG) (see Figure 1).

PACCWASH figure 1

Figure 1 | Percentage of population in MDG regions using an improved sanitation facility (including shared) between 1990 and 2012 (Source: Hadwen et al. 2015)

The MDGs have expired and now we face the global challenge of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). SDG 6, in which sanitation has its own target, states that “by 2030, achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations” (Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform).

In a previous article, we identified some of the many linkages between the SDG 6 goals. Sanitation in the form of waste management is related to other components of the water cycle and associated targets of SDG 6. For example, target 6.3 refers to reducing pollution and the dumping of hazardous materials (like faeces), halving the proportion of untreated wastewater. And this, in turn relates to target 6.6 which urges to protect and restore water-related ecosystems, including wetlands, rivers, aquifers and lakes, all of which can be severely affected by a lack of attention to sanitation planning.

It is important to understand that appropriate waste management is crucial to preserve the already scarce and difficult to access water resources in PICs. A case study from the Solomon Islands and the Marshall Islands found that sanitation issues like overflows (such as from local flooding) and maintenance are not currently well-managed in many rural communities. Many community members do not know where faecal waste goes in the event of an overflow, nor who is responsible for maintaining the sanitation systems. This situation is not exclusive to these countries, and, because of the interconnectedness of the water cycle in many parts of an ecosystem and community, it represents a real threat to health and the environment.

IWRM for improved WASH and climate change resilience in the Pacific

In PICs sanitation challenges will be exacerbated by climate change-related risks and a suboptimal water governance structure and water resources management (Hadwen 2015). In fact, it has been reported that WASH challenges have already started to intensify due to climate change (Meehl 1996; Mimura et al. 2006) and will continue to do so (WHO Regional Office for the Western Pacific 2008).

In the face of these challenges, an appropriate decision-making and planning approach is needed. Hadwen et al. (2015) suggest that a holistic approach like integrated water resources management (IWRM), combined with an awareness of the serious threats from climate change on freshwater sources, will enable better decisions about climate change adaptations. Note that this is already in accordance to target 6.5 of SDG 6 that advocates for the implementation of integrated water resources management at all levels.


It is necessary to understand the influence of sanitation in the water cycle and ensure decisions about sanitation technologies and maintenance consider this. To reinforce that to achieve the SDGs, especially SDG 6, there is also a need to implement sustainable and holistic approaches to planning and decision-making like IWRM, for appropriate water management and one that understands the water cycle as a system without forgetting about components of the system, like sanitation, and the threats from climate change.

More information

This article describes some of the findings from the Pacific Adaptation to Climate Change for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (PACCWASH) Project.

For more information, please contact Principal Investigator, Dr Wade Hadwen, at, or visit the PACCWASH project page.


The PACCWASH Project is coordinated by the International WaterCentre in partnership with:

Griffith University logo Monash Logo   USP logo   UNC logo

and supported by:

Australian Aid_w


Hadwen, W., Powell, B., MacDonald, M. C., Elliott, M., Chan, T., Gernjak, W. and Aalbersberg, W. G. L. (2015) Putting WASH in the Water Cycle: Climate Change, Water Resources and the Future of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Challenges in Pacific Island Countries. Journal of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene for Development 5 (2): 183. doi:10.2166/washdev.2015.133.

Meehl, G. A. (1996) Vulnerability of freshwater resources to climate change in the Tropical Pacific region. In Paper presented at the Climate Change Vulnerability and Adaptation in Asia and the Pacific: In: Proceedings of a workshop held in Manila, Phillipines, 15–19 January 1996.

Mimura, N., Nurse, L., McLean, R. F., Agard, J., Briguglio, L., Lefale, P., Payet, R. & Sem, G. (2007) Small islands. Climate change 2007: impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. In: Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, (M. L. Parry, O. F. Canziani, J. P. Palutikof, P. J. v. d. Linden & C. E. Hanson eds). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, pp. 687–716.
Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform. Sustainable Development Goal 6. Accessed on 17/11/2016. []
WHO Regional Office for the Western Pacific 2008 Sanitation, hygiene and drinking-water in the Pacific Island countries: Converting commitment into action. World Health Organization, Geneva, Switzerland.

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