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The climate crisis is a water crisis

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In collaboration with 1854/British Journal of Photography, WaterAid is commissioning three new photographic projects exploring the ways in which the climate crisis is obstructing people’s basic rights to clean water, decent sanitation and personal hygiene — especially in some of the world’s poorest countries.

Clean water is a human right. Already, a staggering 1 in 10 people globally are without it — but as climate change accelerates, these numbers will worsen. In the years ahead, regions are set to experience increasingly more extreme weather patterns: droughts will intensify, dangerous flooding will contaminate ill-protected water supplies, and the impact on human life could be devastating.  

In collaboration with 1854 and British Journal of Photography, leading non-profit WaterAid is seeking to commission three new photographic projects exposing how the climate crisis is making it harder for people to access basic necessities of clean water, decent sanitation and personal hygiene around the world. The selected photographers will be paid a commission fee of £13,500 each to undertake their projects over two months in 2021 in one of the countries where WaterAid works.* 

© Mustafah Abdulaziz

Climate change can feel an abstract and overwhelming concept to many of us. But the communities who have contributed the least to its causes — the poorest — are the ones hit the hardest by its reality. “They are already struggling to survive,” says Neil Wissink, Creative Content Lead at WaterAid. “They often don’t have a reliable source of clean water, so they’re more susceptible to getting sick, which in turn might mean they’re unable to go to work or attend school. Add climate change into the mix and this is all made so much harder.”

As the climate warms, the World Health Organization estimates that half of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas as early as 2025. Perhaps even more soberingly, almost one in four children are set to live in areas where water is “alarmingly scarce” by 2040. “When the world’s poorest people are hit by a climate disaster, they are often unable to cope,” Wissink says. “And with weather becoming increasingly more erratic, this problem is only becoming more and more urgent.”

© Mustafah Abdulaziz

Without clean water close to home, women in particular waste precious time walking long distances to collect dirty water that could make them sick. Many girls skip classes or drop out of school altogether if there are no private toilets to manage their periods. And approximately 289,000 children per year do not live to see their fifth birthday because of diseases caused by dirty water and poor sanitation. By putting water, toilets and hygiene at the top of the global agenda, WaterAid is committed to helping these communities adapt, break free from cycles of inequality and change their lives for good. 

“A reliable supply of clean water changes everything”

Neil Wissink, Creative Content Lead at WaterAid

“A reliable supply of clean water changes everything,” says Wissink. “It means people can stay fit and healthy. They can earn a living and children can get an education, opening up a world of opportunities. Whole communities become more resilient and adaptable. Crucially, they become better prepared for an increasingly erratic climate.”

With this in mind, the newly-launched WaterAid Climate Commission in collaboration with 1854 and British Journal of Photography seeks to draw attention to the multifaceted ways in which the climate crisis contributes to rife social and humanitarian injustice: to show how climate change is impacting some of the most vulnerable communities in the world, and thereby raise awareness of how ensuring everyone has sustainable access to clean water and decent toilets can help protect lives and livelihoods — whatever the future holds.

© Mustafah Abdulaziz

“Water, sanitation and hygiene are often overlooked or lower down in the hierarchy of bigger narratives around climate change,” explains Wissink, “so we want to raise the profile of the issue in general. But particularly with the people who have the power to influence policy priorities at various levels of government. We want to bring the voices of those most affected closer to decision makers.”

Central to the commission will be powerful human-led stories: nuanced and emotive visual narratives that shine a light on how individuals and communities are impacted by the climate-induced water crisis — both directly and by way of knock-on effects — as well as how they are adapting and responding. “It’s also important that the photographers understand the ethics of representation and are able to centre the voices of people and communities they work with,” adds Wissink. “We particularly encourage applications from photographers who live and work in the countries where WaterAid works and their diasporas.”

The partnership is an integral element of 1854 and British Journal of Photography’s first bi-monthly theme, Decade of Change, which sees us examine urgent questions of the environment across our editorial content, awards and commissions platform; in doing so, we aim to champion the vital role photography plays in building a better future for our planet. 

© Mario Macilau

“It’s incredibly important for people to see the effects of climate change,” says Wissink of the collaboration. “Not just to know that climate change is happening, but to see with their own eyes that it is already affecting people’s lives in ways that are sometimes big and sometimes subtle and unexpected. Photographers can lead the way in moving past some of the more cliché visual representations of climate change — such as scorched earth and dramatic hurricanes — to depict some of the wider, but lesser-known impacts.”

The WaterAid Climate Commission is open exclusively to 1854 Access Members, plus any photographers living in non-high-income countries, including the countries where WaterAid works.

Are you an 1854 Access Member or photographer living in a non-high-income country/WaterAid territory? Find out more about the commission here.

* Where WaterAid works:

  • Africa: Burkina Faso, eSwatini, Ethiopia, Ghana, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia
  • Asia: Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan
  • Central America: Colombia, Nicaragua
  • Pacific region: Cambodia, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste
Flossie Skelton

Flossie Skelton joined British Journal of Photography in 2019, where she is currently a staff writer. She does freelance writing, editing and campaign work across arts, culture and feminism; she has worked with BBC Arts, BRICKS Magazine, Belfast Photo Festival and Time’s Up. She is also an illustrator, with artwork published in Marie Claire, ES Magazine, Sunday Times Style and the Guardian.

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