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Summary: the severity of climate impacts on WASH services is uncertain. “Low-regrets” investments or interventions are those which generate net economic benefits under a range of the most plausible scenarios of climate impact severity. The concept is explored in Figure 1, which illustrates relationships between net benefits and the severity of climate impacts for different types of high/low/no-regrets options. It is also important to explore non-climate uncertainty, ideally in a probabilistic way.
Uncertainty is when we have imperfect information about variables in the present or the future. Even though the effects of climate change are increasingly upon us already, the scale and nature of their economic impacts remain uncertain (Burke et al., 2015). The further into the future the projection, the more this uncertainty increases (IPCC, 2022), because: (i) many variables interact in determining climate impacts; (ii) we can (and must) reduce greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate the worst impacts, and any effect of those actions is also uncertain.
The higher levels of water and sanitation services sought by SDG 6 are characterised by infrastructure assets with useful lives of 20-50 years or more (Hutton and Varughese, 2016). It is particularly important to characterise the vulnerability of such long-lived infrastructure to climate risks, especially since retro-fitting can be more expensive than designing for uncertainty upfront (Chester et al., 2020). I go into some of the climate risks to WASH services in this post.
Benefit-cost analysis (BCA) is the most commonly-used economic evaluation method for appraising WASH investments [a short introductory paragraph on BCA is below this post]*. In appraisal of interventions for adaptation or resilience, “no regrets” interventions are those which generate net benefits under all future climate/impact scenarios (Heltberg et al., 2009). A more achievable principle, endorsed by the IPCC (2012), may be aiming at least for “low”-regrets interventions. These are interventions which generate net benefits under a range of the most plausible scenarios. However, they also account for the risk that we might “regret” additional investment in adaptation/resilience if climate impacts are not as bad as expected. No-regrets options would be first choice, and often they will be available. However, low-regrets options may be important if adaptation/resilience increases costs substantially in relation to benefits in a “no climate change” scenario.
Low-regrets thinking has been applied in identifying opportunities for short/medium-term climate risk reduction within development interventions (Conway and Schipper, 2011). Identifying low-regrets options can also help reduce the risk of maladaptation (Barnett and O’Neill, 2010). This line of thinking can be applied whether what is being evaluated is a whole new investment in WASH services, or options for adapting/upgrading existing WASH services.
A few years ago, I was part of a three-country study looking at risk assessment and economic appraisal for adaptation to climate change in WASH (Oates et al., 2014). In making the economic arguments, we used a diagram which I’ve simplified here (Figure 1), and which I think Kit Nicholson came up with. The x-axis plots the severity of climate impacts (broadly defined) as an uncertain continuous variable. The y-axis plots the benefit-cost ratio (BCR) [see explanation at bottom]* of intervention options. The threshold where benefits equal costs on average over the time horizon (e.g. 20 years) is shown as “1”. In simple terms, we want to be above the green band, but we don’t know where we’ll be on the x-axis.
Plenty of WASH infrastructure constructed in recent decades might be climate risky (blue line A), i.e. in the absence of climate impacts it looks economically attractive, but as climate impacts worsen then BCR<1. Designing for the worst-case scenario may result in investments which are high regrets (orange line B), i.e. over-designed such that climate impacts have to be very severe before BCR>1. No-regrets options (both green lines C) are any interventions for which BCR>1 regardless the severity of climate impacts. Low-regrets options (yellow line D) may have BCR slightly below 1 when climate impacts are small, but gradually appear more attractive as climate impacts worsen. Low-regrets options need not necessarily have BCR<1 in the case of “no climate change”, but at least they would need to have lower BCR in that scenario than an option without investment in adaptation/resilience. While BCAs often present decisions as “doing something” versus “doing nothing”, this framework aims to account for the fact that in the real world there are usually multiple options under consideration.
A simplified WASH example can help illustrate. A team is planning a piped water supply with a treatment plant fed by a river intake, and the risk is identified that turbulent flows resulting from an extreme weather event may damage the intake. A “climate-risky” option might be to design the intake to withstand a flood of a given height with a 25-year return period, which is fairly likely to be exceeded within the useful life of the infrastructure. A “high-regrets” option might be to design for a 200-year return period, which would be more expensive, but increasingly worth doing as the probability of climate change-induced floods increases (Figure 1). A low-regrets option might be somewhere in-between. The reality is more complex than this, and there are many specific options within this scenario, related to, e.g. overflows, intake design, floating booms, early warning systems, etc. (Howard and Bartram, 2010).
There are some qualifications to make regarding this way of framing adaptation options. First, this framework does not make value judgements, e.g. high-regrets options are not necessarily a bad idea. However, since all investments have an opportunity cost (i.e. resources are scarce), high-regrets options may be less desirable from an equity perspective, because more people in a given year could be provided with WASH services under a low-regrets option. Second, while I often refer to these interventions as “adaptation options”, many might comprise what we should be doing anyway given existing climate variability, and the need to be resilient to risks other than the climate.
Third, many non-climate parameters in BCAs are also uncertain (e.g. costs, health effects, uptake, maintenance etc.), but this framework puts the focus on uncertainty about climate impacts. Bands incorporating uncertainty of many other parameters may therefore be more appropriate than lines. The low-regrets option from Figure 1 could be assessed in a probabilistic sensitivity analysis (PSA) per climate scenario. Such a PSA would posit plausible probability distributions for key parameters (Briggs, 2000), then run a Monte Carlo simulation with (say) 1,000 iterations. An uncertainty interval could then be posited by graphing the range of the middle 95% of iterations within a band, such as in Figure 2. This line of thinking is the main thing that is new in this post, as compared to the 2014 work (Oates et al., 2014).
Fourth, one challenge in undertaking such analyses is that, due to “deep uncertainty” in the context of climate change, it is hard to ascribe probabilities to many key variables (Hallegatte et al., 2012). Nonetheless, a Bayesian approach to uncertainty requires that the analyst makes their best estimate at the shapes of probability distributions (Briggs, 1999). Simply leaving variables out of the analysis, or not doing a PSA at all, is the same as assuming they are known with certainty. Assuming a uniform distribution for a given parameter only makes sense if the aim is to explore possible heterogeneity across settings, rather than estimating a realistic mean and uncertainty interval to inform a specific decision in a given setting. Expert opinion, tested in scenario analysis alongside the PSA, is therefore likely to play an important role. Fifth, in the real world, the “severity of climate impacts” is not a single continuous variable as in Figures 1 and 2. The IPCC provides multiple projections, and practically it would make sense to undertake scenario analysis using those.
In conclusion, I suggest that appraisal of investments in WASH infrastructure adaptation or resilience can be informed by a “regrets” perspective focused on climate uncertainty (Figure 1), but also taking account of uncertainty of non-climate parameters (Figure 2). Low-regrets options are those which generate net economic benefits under a range of the most plausible scenarios of climate impact severity.
*BCA combines all the consequences of an intervention (e.g. saved time, reduced disease, quality of life gained) and places a monetary (e.g. US$) value on them. These monetised benefits are then compared to the costs of an intervention over time, with discounting. Metrics for comparing options include the net present value (=benefits–costs) or the benefit-cost ratio (=benefits/costs). The benefit-cost ratio (BCR) is often communicated in terms of US$ X economic returns on US$ 1 invested. If the BCR is greater than 1 (the clearing rate or threshold) then the intervention has net benefits, and if less than 1 it does not. Benefit-cost ratios of different intervention options can be compared to assess their relative efficiency, although other factors should be taken into consideration (equity, feasibility, relative size of net benefits, etc.)
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The Water Integrity Network General Assembly just approved our next 10-year strategy for 2023-2033: Catalsying a culture of integrity. WIN will build on past successes and a strong tool and research portfolio while expanding and building capacity of its network of partners. The aim is to push forward a culture of integrity for the water and sanitation sectors, in support of the realisation of the human rights to water and sanitation for all.
“The challenges facing the water sector are immense and no single actor can solve them alone. Only through concerted efforts by all stakeholders—including governments, public institutions, businesses, private organisations, and civil society—can these challenges be confronted.”
We thank all our partners for their support and contributions in making WIN what it is today and helping shape this ambitious strategy. We invite you all to join this integrity journey for water and sanitation.
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When Saadia started working as an engineer for a public water utility in Morocco, she was always “the only woman at the table,” she recalls.
Today, as a trainer at the International Institute of Water and Wastewater (IEA) in Rabat, she helps prepare young people — including many young women — to join her in a sector that has traditionally been dominated by men.
In line with USAID Administrator Samantha Power’s call for more inclusive development, H2O Maghreb and other USAID activities have helped partners in many countries break the bias against women and girls in the water and sanitation sector.
H2O Maghreb, for which Saadia served as a trainer, was at the forefront of efforts to boost women’s employment in water and sanitation in Morocco during the project’s four-year duration. More than three-quarters of the 112 young people who enrolled in the project’s training course in sustainable water management from November 2018 to February 2022 — and 78 percent of its 91 graduates — were women.
The status quo
A World Bank study that collected data from 64 water and sanitation service providers in 28 countries found that, on average, only 18 percent of the utilities’ workers were women. In Morocco, a study commissioned by H2O Maghreb in 2021 revealed that the number of women entering the sector is increasing, but only a quarter of the employees in the government’s three main water and sanitation agencies were women.
Moroccan women’s representation in technical jobs was even lower. For example, at the country’s largest water utility, the Office National de L’électricité et de L’eau Potable (ONEE), about 17 percent of employees and less than one percent of technical enforcement agents were women.
Salma Kadiri, Project Management Specialist with USAID/Morocco, explains that employers usually avoid hiring women for technical jobs because of traditional expectations about women’s place in society. “For security reasons and because of social norms here in Morocco, they prefer not to give women jobs when they have to travel and go to the clients,” she says.
The best candidates
Conducted at ONEE’s IEA training hub, H2O Maghreb’s six-month courses offered trainees a mix of theoretical learning and hands-on experience, including practice responding to emergencies through a virtual water treatment plant created for the project by its private sector partners, EON Reality and Fesco Didactic. USAID and its implementing partner the United Nations Industrial Development Organization also partnered with ONEE and several Moroccan government ministries under this project.
This public-private partnership designed the training course to help meet a critical need for state-of-the-art capacity in sustainable water management at a time when Morocco’s limited freshwater resources are under pressure from population growth, industrialization, urbanization, and climate change. Morocco is also facing the worst drought in decades, meaning sustainable water management is more important than ever.
USAID also saw the project as an opportunity to expand the inclusion of women, and H2O Maghreb actively recruited female trainees. The 2021 study found that providing safe accommodations and meals at the IEA made it possible for young people from all regions of the country to participate in the training, and they may have been the deciding factor for young women considering participation.
Ultimately, however, the predominance of young women among the trainees reflected their performance on the entrance exams, notes Kadiri. “There were some actions that encouraged female participation,” she says, “But also the transparency and open competition of the hiring process for H2O Maghreb helped to select the best candidates, which happened to be women.”
Mentors and role models
The experiences of the first group of women trainees aided subsequent recruitment efforts, as these graduates returned to speak to other trainee classes and spread the word among their peers that H2O Maghreb is an environment where women can thrive. To create that environment, the project recruited women to serve as trainers, raised awareness of gender issues during the training of both trainers and trainees, used gender-neutral language, and featured women in training videos and printed materials.
Kadiri emphasizes the importance of mentoring, particularly by the two women trainers, who are “very encouraging and supportive of young female students.”
Women who had achieved success in water management positions, including engineers, technicians, trainers, and managers, also served as role models by participating in workshops to share their experiences with the trainees. Those discussions, Kadiri says, were “really eye-opening for the young students and helped them to project themselves in the water sector.”
For Saadia, the training was an opportunity to share her own experiences as an engineer and her love of the field with young people, especially young women. “Our training programs go beyond just teaching the right techniques,” she says. “We motivate our students to be passionate about what they do.”
A new generation
The H20 Maghreb project ended in February 2022, but the approach it pioneered continues. The project collaborated with Mohammed VI Polytechnic University to adapt the curriculum for a new degree program in sustainable water management. The Ministry of Education has accredited the H2O Maghreb curriculum, and Morocco’s Office of Professional Training and Work Promotion plans to offer vocational training based on the curriculum in the Beni Mellal region.
Seventy-five percent of the 91 students who completed the H2O Maghreb training found employment within six months of graduation (before the COVID-19 pandemic, when hiring slowed). Overall, about 68 percent were employed at project completion.
The placement rate of women trainees was even higher (79 percent pre-COVID), particularly in the public sector, where female recruits excelled in the merit-based hiring system — including a written test. “Women have more chances to succeed in these tests, rather than in the private sector, where it goes through interviews and interpersonal relations and networking, where women are less privileged or less well placed than men,” Kadiri says.
Saadia is proud that many of the women who graduated from H20 Maghreb are now her colleagues. “When I joined ONEE, a female water technician network didn’t exist; it was a job for men,” she says. “It’s a real revolution.”
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