Impacts of climate vulnerability on safely managed sanitation in rural Cambodia

Samraong Saen commune in rural Kampong Chhnang province, Cambodia experiences seasonal flooding that stifles safely managed sanitation

Samraong Saen commune in rural Kampong Chhnang province, Cambodia experiences seasonal flooding that stifles safely managed sanitation Credit: iDE / Tyler Kozole


This Water, WASH & Climate story was authored by Rana Abdel-Sattar, iDE


According to iDE, sanitation is at risk of being overshadowed by a focus on water in the climate and WASH discussions. Climate-related sanitation behaviour is a relatively understudied and under-discussed topic in the sector, which needs to be mainstreamed.     


iDE’s research into the impacts of climate vulnerability on sanitation


In 2021, iDE research supported by Water for Women explored how living in a climate vulnerable area, such as a flood prone area, can impact latrine functionality and rural households’ sanitation practices. iDE’s geospatial and regression analysis showed how flooding can cause further unsafe faecal sludge management practices at the household level in the rural Cambodia context.

A pierced pit releases faecal sludge into the open environment

The key takeaway:

Progress towards safely managed sanitation for all is foundational to WASH climate-resilience. As climate change increases the prevalence and irregularity of heavy storms and floods, it will increase sanitation system failure and exacerbate unsafe coping behaviour from households, such as discharging waste openly by making a hole in the side of the pit or removing the pit lid.


A pierced pit releases faecal sludge into the open environment (iDE / Tyler Kozole)

The story of a rural village in Kampong Thom Province


Three years after an unusual flood event in a rural village in Kampong Thom Province, Cambodia, a high water mark about 1.3 metres from the ground is still visible on a latrine shelter. The flood water inundated the latrine pit, causing the toilet to become temporarily dysfunctional and inaccessible. As a reactive measure, some households in the village opened their pits during the flood season, releasing the faecal sludge into the floodwater and  nearby river. Water marks on concrete stilts by some households were  over 2-metres-high.

A yellow latrine in Cambodia is shown with flood marks

A latrine shelter shows the high water mark left after flooding (iDE / Tyler Kozole)

A stilted house in a seasonally flooded area of Kampong Thom Province, Cambodia

A stilted house in a seasonally flooded area of Kampong Thom Province is more flood resilient, however the unelevated toilet shelter is and shows a flood water mark that caused it to be temporarily inaccessible and dysfunctional during flooding (iDE / Tyler Kozole)


Lessons from the research


The link between climate vulnerability and sanitation is clear: climate vulnerability negatively impacts toilet functionality and stifles safe sanitation practices. As climate change increases the frequency and irregularity of heavy storms and floods, increased toilet abandonment and dysfunction along with increased frequencies of unsafe household sanitation practices, including discharging faecal sludge openly, are likely to increase in climate-vulnerable regions. Ultimately, this means that water sources and the environment will become contaminated more frequently and heavily, and sickness among people as a result will increase.


Coupled with the effects of poverty and the isolation of rural communities, these issues will likely magnify for the poorest households, particularly due to difficulties in managing and paying for maintenance of sanitation systems; and a lack of service availability and/or affordability. The effect of climate change, particularly flooding, have strong impacts on the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable households.


To mitigate negative health and environmental impacts, sanitation programs and technologies must focus on climate-resilience by targeting unsafe fecal sludge management practices and improving access to safely managed sanitation solutions in climate-vulnerable areas.


Recommendations and actions for sector


Based on iDE’s research, climate-resilient toilet designs informed by scientifically sound evidence are needed. In addition, governments and the WASH sector should fund research to characterise climate-relevant metrics to facilitate climate-resilient WASH design.


Actions for the WASH sector include:

  • develop practical tools to effectively identify and target climate-vulnerability in relation to WASH
  • monitor and evaluate safely managed sanitation behaviors in climate vulnerable areas
  • develop, adapt, and promote resilient and inclusive safely managed sanitation solutions through participatory approaches
  • improve access to affordable and aspirational sanitation products and services to contain, treat, and safely dispose of fecal sludge in climate-vulnerable regions
  • consider the introduction of partial subsidies targeting socio-economically disadvantaged and climate-vulnerable households while preventing market distortion
  • align with local government WASH strategies and mobilise community sanitation champions, businesses, civil society and government, to increase awareness and adaptive capacity around safely managed sanitation and climate vulnerability.


Additional resources:




This story was first shared as part of the This is Water, WASH & Climate: Stories from Practice, on 22 June 2022 during the Water, WASH & Climate Virtual Symposium. It has since been edited with permission.


An inclusive community is an essential building block of a climate resilient community. In an uncertain and rapidly changing world, there is no greater priority than ensuring that water and WASH systems are future-proofed for climate resilience, social cohesion, accountability and wellbeing. Embedding the voice of women and marginalised people in water and WASH systems is one of the most effective pathways to strengthen equity and inclusion, so that the ‘invisible’ becomes visible, and valued. Valuing diversity, and diverse perspectives, strengthens prospects for a more climate resilient and socially cohesive future.

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