The climate resilience role for water safety plans

Photo credit: Matthew Damons

The use of water safety plans is being extended in response to the growing challenges of climate change. Kizito Masinde, Katharine Cross and Matthew Damons look at progress, and at the work to support implementation by African water utilities, while in an accompanying article, Rory McKeown provides WHO’s perspective.


Water safety plans (WSPs) provide a comprehensive risk assessment and risk management approach that enables utilities to consider the hazards at every step of the water supply chain, from the catchment to the consumer. They are widely accepted as the most effective means of consistently ensuring the safety of a drinking water supply, offering a proactive approach to assess and manage current and future risks.

While an effective WSP should consider and prioritise the management of all significant risks, growing concern about the impacts of climate change has put greater emphasis on strengthening the climate aspects. This has led to climate-resilient water safety planning as an effective tool for utilities to build resilience against current and future climate-related hazards. (See panel on page 60, ‘WHO’s climate-resilient WSP progress’.)

Climate-resilient WSPs (CR WSPs) give greater consideration to the impacts of climate change and variability at each step of the water supply system, including a greater focus on water quantity, as opposed to just quality. The overall aim remains one of ensuring that the utility retains the capacity to anticipate, respond to, cope with, and recover from stress and change, maintaining its essential function, identity and structure in the face of all hazards.

Implementing climate resilience

When assessing risks, climate-resilient water safety planning considers climate impacts on the effectiveness of existing measures, the risk profile of existing hazards and hazardous events, and potential new risks associated with climate-related hazards and hazardous events.

Prioritisation of these risks then supports incremental climate-resilient improvement planning. This may involve designing resilient infrastructure – for example, elevating critical assets above flood level, or using options such as diversification of a utility’s raw water sources. Further actions might include supporting infrastructure with non-infrastructural measures, such as designing water tariffs to influence use by customers.

Management procedures are needed for considering climate-related emergencies, with response plans forming part of a utility’s preparedness for extreme weather events. These plans need to consider response actions such as monitoring procedures, the roles and responsibilities of various team members and stakeholders, and communication protocols.

This implementation of CR WSP responds to the climate impacts utilities face. Anticipated effects of a warming world include changes in the frequency and intensity of extremes. Mean annual precipitation is expected to increase for some latitudes and regions, but decrease for others.

A decrease will mean a reduction in renewable surface water and groundwater resources – in which case, utilities will face greater competition when seeking to meet their raw water quantity requirements.

Potential water quality impacts include: increased pollutant concentrations because of reduced dilution; greater release of dissolved organic matter from soils; and increased eutrophication and consequent cyanobacterial (“algal”) blooms.

Wetter conditions will also affect water quality. Surface water, in particular, will be impacted by increased erosion and in-stream turbulence, resulting in a higher solids load. Increased flooding also presents a risk of physical damage to infrastructure.

These challenges mean that utilities need to understand, plan and manage their systems better, in order to sustain services. This requires engagement with the catchment area and other environmental agencies, and a need to look beyond short-term operation and maintenance priorities, which can distract from the medium- and long-term climate risks.

A utility may need to engage wider expertise when developing a CR WSP. For example, the team might need to include meteorologists, climatologists, hydrologists and disaster risk reduction experts. They will help the utility capture relevant climate information in the water supply system description that supports subsequent hazard identification and risk assessment.

Utilities also need to build capacity to manage climate-related risks, through training programmes in areas such as flood and drought management, or demand management. Stakeholder engagement and outreach programmes can help create partnerships for improved management of water resources and quality, while research and development programmes can focus on water supply system modelling to support increased operational and water efficiency.

Supporting holistic approaches in Africa

Water utilities face three important challenges when seeking to implement a CR WSP. There may be limited understanding within a utility of the impacts of climate change on operations. Access to relevant climate data may be poor and, where available, the capacity to interpret the data and draw useful conclusions may be missing. In addition, it may not be obvious how to assess the risks to the utility and incorporate them into water safety planning, even with good interpretation of the data by an expert within or outside the utility.

To help utilities in Africa meet these challenges, the International Water Association (IWA) has been involved in targeted implementation to integrate CR WSP into utilities. It has also used strategic awareness approaches, involving key stakeholders, to support the institutionalisation of climate-resilient water safety planning within countries.

One of the projects supporting this is ‘Implementing Climate Resilient Water Safety Planning to Improve Water Supply and Public Health’. This seeks to address how utilities use WSPs to better prepare for and respond to extreme weather events. Funded by the OPEC Fund for International Development (OFID), the two-year scheme is being implemented through: sensitisation and advocacy workshops; capacity building on WSP development and implementation; and training on the use of online tools to support planning and decision-making for issues related to climate variability and change.

Implementation of the project is ongoing in Burkina Faso with the Office National de l’Eau et de l’Assainissement (ONEA), in Ghana with the Ghana Water Company (GWCL), in Kenya with the Kisumu Water and Sanitation Company (KIWASCO), and in Senegal with Sénégalaise des Eaux (SDE). Further implementation is planned in Ethiopia. Key activities in the project include:

Training: CR WSP training has been carried out in the four countries to educate utility staff and selected stakeholders on the approach. It has included a web-based WSP support tool, which integrates water safety planning into daily operations. Approaches to address climate resilience and the needs of vulnerable groups were also integrated into training around climate-resilient water safety planning, to ensure safe water supply for all.

WSP development and implementation: Support is being given to the utilities in the form of onsite and remote guidance and supervision throughout the duration of the project, to ensure that CR WSPs are developed in pilot supply regions, and that implementation of WSPs is embedded within the operations of the utilities.

Sensitisation and awareness workshops: Later in the project, stakeholders will be engaged through national and sub-regional workshops and meetings, to sensitise them to the concept, benefits and approach of CR WSPs.

The data and interpretation challenge

A key tool being introduced to the participating utilities, to enable them to access the right data and support them in interpreting it, is the Flood and Drought Portal ( This was developed through the Flood and Drought Management Tools (FDMT) project (, funded by the Global Environment Facility’s International Waters focal area and implemented by UN Environment (UNEP), with DHI and the IWA as the executing agencies.

The portal provides satellite-based data, seasonal and medium-range climate forecasts, climate change projections, and selected data and information relevant for basin and local planning. Datasets are updated in near real time (from 48 hours) and can be downloaded, giving users the option of analysing the data using their own techniques and tools.

The portal also has a number of technical applications that support planning from the transboundary basin scale to the water utility level, by including better information on floods and droughts. For water utilities, there is a specific WSP-supporting application to develop and document a WSP while integrating climate change considerations. Other applications in the portal can supply information to the WSP process in a way that considers climate change impacts on operations and management of water resources.

A ‘Guideline for Interpreting Climate Information for Application in Water Safety Planning’ has been developed, with the ultimate aim of helping utilities identify the changes in likelihood and severity of the hazards and hazardous events associated with floods and droughts, and to subsequently mitigate these.

Detailed instructions have been given within this guidance to facilitate conclusions that can be used within the WSP processes. It is important to note, however, that it is up to the water utility to make the right decision after analysis of options using decision-support systems and tools such as the Flood and Drought Management Tools.


There is still a considerable amount of uncertainty about the magnitude of impacts of climate change. Nonetheless, it is fundamentally important that water suppliers devise ways of making decisions under this prevailing uncertainty, in order to adapt and be resilient.

One way of doing this is to ensure that decisions made are flexible and robust enough to suit a wide range of projected conditions. In addition, they have to be adaptive to changing conditions and make economic sense in the long run.

WSPs encourage an incremental approach when implementing expensive and long-term improvement plans. So they are essential in helping utilities make decisions on what are the immediate climate-related risks that need short-term investments, and which need medium- and long-term investments.

The authors

Kizito Masinde and Katharine Cross are with IWA. Matthew Damons is with South African water utility Emanti, which has facilitated the development and implementation of water safety planning at numerous municipalities and water utilities in South Africa and beyond.

More information

Global status report on water safety plans: A review of proactive risk assessment and risk management practices to ensure the safety of drinking water. World Health Organization/International Water Association, 2017.

Climate-resilient water safety plans: Managing health risks associated with climate variability and change. World Health Organization, 2017.

Strategic recommendations for climate smart water utilities: Using the Flood and Drought Portal in planning. GEF, UN Environment, DHI, IWA.

For more information on IWA’s activity on water and sanitation services, see

Challenges in developing and implementing water safety plans

Enabling environment: absence of appropriate policies and legislation that serve as drivers for implementation; inadequate control by health authorities

Organisational support: lack of management buy-in; non-integration of WSP in all water utility processes

Human resources: inadequate staff; limited staff capacity and experience

Holistic implementation: emphasis on the WSP ‘front end’ (team, system description, hazard identification, risk assessment and improvement planning) and negligence of the ‘back end’ (ongoing operations, management, monitoring and review aspects)

Stakeholder engagement: non-inclusion of, or lack of buy-in from, key stakeholders – for example, consumers, regulators, catchment authorities, health authorities

Financing: Financial barriers limiting WSP development at the initial stage, and the implementation of improvement plans


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