Climate change and water insecurity in The Gambia

Indira Bose, a Research Fellow and PhD Candidate at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine explores recent research on the complex relationship between water security and climate change in rural communities in The Gambia.
Dry tree with no leaves on dry land in front of the sea

Water is essential for human health and well-being, yet access to safe water in many communities is being threatened by climate change. As droughts, heavy rainfall events, and increased variability in precipitation become more frequent, people’s ability to access the water they need for their essential daily activities may be affected. Furthermore, these events might also affect the quality of water supplies. In order to investigate how seasonal rainfall patterns and extreme weather events affect water security, we conducted a qualitative study in two regions of The Gambia, in collaboration with the Medical Research Council (MRC) Unit The Gambia at LSHTM.

Many studies trying to capture the impacts of climate on health typically focus on large datasets and models to measure current effects and forecast changes. These studies are critical to our understanding of the broader impacts, but we also need to ensure that we capture the human experiences of these changes. In this study, we therefore sought to understand people’s lived experiences of water security and rainfall through multiple qualitative methods. This included in-depth interviews, as well as participatory methods such as transect walks, where we walked with participants through their communities and documented key points in their daily routine related to water. These methods helped us to understand how the environment might shape these communities’ experiences with water, and how this could be impacted by unpredictable weather events.

Across the communities in the two study regions of Kiang West and Basse, we found a complex relationship between weather and water security, which varied depending on access to infrastructure. For those using water sources such as wells, dry conditions sometimes reduced availability of water.  For others the wet season posed greater challenges due to seasonal workloads and mechanical issues related to their water source.  Even across these relatively small geographic areas, the challenges associated with water security can vary substantially, and are extremely nuanced.

This research revealed that even though everyone had access to a water source in their village, many still regularly experienced challenges to their water security. It demonstrates the importance of using experiential measures to understand water access, in addition to looking at access to improved water sources. These experiences are not static – they can change for a variety of issues including governance challenges, and seasonal changes.

Extreme weather events were perceived to exacerbate seasonal challenges. Events such as heavy rainfall are associated with a good harvest, but sometimes led to contamination of water sources. One community member said, “That yearthe rain was successful so people have plenty [of food] after harvestingOn the side of waterpeople face major difficulties in terms of buildings collapsing and othersThat year even this well [pointing to the close by well by his compound] it created a hole somewhere else because of the flood of the water….. That year the water was very dirty”

Conversely, extended dry periods led to water shortages. Given that extreme events are expected to increase in the future, this research brings attention to the importance of investing in climate-resilient infrastructure and other adaptation strategies to mitigate these risks.

One striking finding was that in many communities there had been recent investment in solar-powered boreholes, which are considered to be a water source that is more climate-resilient, as we all as improving water quality. However, many people using the solar-powered boreholes mentioned challenges accessing water in cloudy conditions. A woman from one of the communities said, “…at times in rainy seasonwe will stay for the whole day without wateras it is cloudy and there is no sunlight so the solar cannot fill the tank. This may be due to issues with the mechanisms installed or the size of the water tanks, but demonstrates the complexity of the relationship between weather and water availability when using these solutions.

This research underlines the importance of taking lived experiences of both climate impacts and climate solutions already being implemented into consideration when designing and evaluating interventions. Studies like this can provide evidence for local policymakers to improve climate solutions, and invest in better infrastructure, maintenance, and water-treatment,  to ensure their people have access to the water they need at all times.


Indira Bose, Robert Dreibelbis, Rosemary Green, Kris A. Murray, Omar Ceesay and Sari Kovats. Climate change, seasonality and household water security in rural Gambia: A qualitative exploration of the complex relationship between weather and water. PLOS Water.

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