Water is one of the most necessary elements for life, yet more than 780 million people worldwide use water from unsafe sources. In addition, 2.5 billion people lack adequate sanitation facilities. Inadequate or unsafe water and sanitation supplies, along with poor hygiene habits, kill 3,000 children each day and sickens thousands more, according to the World Health Organization/UNICEF, which jointly monitors the issue. Unsafe drinking water also can lead to diarrheal diseases, which can slow the absorption of nutrients, hindering children’s development.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the situation is worsening. Water quality worldwide is declining, threatening the health of ecosystems throughout the environment. The decline may be influenced by population growth, urbanization, land use, industrial discharge of chemicals, and global climate change.

Water, sanitary, and hygiene (WASH) principles are of tremendous concern in everyday life, but can be heightened during an emergency. With systems potentially damaged, access to water can be difficult. Sanitation often comes to the forefront when displaced persons live in camps—especially overcrowded ones.

WASH issues are multi-faceted even in the best of times. Access to water is a consideration, but so too is the quality of the water. Sanitation challenges may be vastly different in urban and rural areas. And even more developed nations are not immune from disease spread by poor hygiene practices.

Key Facts

  • Deteriorating water quality threatens global gains made in improving access to drinking water. Between 1990 and 2000, more than 2 billion people gained access to improved water sources. Even if the water is safe at the originating source, it may be contaminated by the time it is consumed in households.
  • Poor WASH procedures are only compounded in a disaster. Communities without access to water have even less in the aftermath of a large-scale disaster. Sanitation issues can be increased by large populations living in close quarters. As more disasters hit urban areas, the demands on urban water treatment facilities may be stretched to the limits; as urban disasters are a relatively new phenomenon, there may not be the capacity or resources to deal with WASH issues in heavily populated areas. A cholera outbreak in Haiti, (internal link) in the aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake, sickened more than 470,000 Haitians and killed 7,000. It marked the first cholera outbreak in that country in more than a century. In Hurricane Katrina, more than 1,000 drinking water systems and 172 sewage treatment plants were damaged, leaving 2.4 million people without access to safe drinking water. Initial testing found high levels of lead and e. coli bacteria present in the water.
  • Refugees are particularly at risk for poor WASH practices. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that half of the refugee camps around the world cannot provide the minimum daily requirements for water, while nearly a third lack adequate waste and latrine facilities. In addition, lack of private water and sanitation facilities increases children’s and women’s risk of sexual and gender-based violence. In September 2012, for example, an outbreak of hepatitis E killed 16 refugees in three camps in South Sudan; the outbreak was traced to unsafe drinking water.
  • Lack of access to water leads to a high educational drop-out rate of girls. In some communities, household chores such as gathering water or garbage disposal fall to the young women in the family, preventing them from attending school. Providing water closer to home frees up a girl’s time for education, improving her chances for future success.

How To Help

  • Fund programs that develop and promote water conservation around the world. Safe and plentiful water is threatened by global climate change. Increased demand and changing climate patterns have combined to drain rivers; water shortages have become a problem even in some parts of the United States. Pollution threatens the quality of what remains.
  • Strengthen operations and maintenance issues related to reliable water supply. Some countries in sub-Saharan African have water, but about a third of water systems there are non-operational at any given time.
  • Target water, sanitation, and hygiene programs in schools in developing nations. Children are eager to learn, and healthy hygiene habits can last for a lifetime. In addition, poor sanitary conditions contribute to high rates of illness and absenteeism.
  • Undertake vulnerability assessments of community water and sanitation systems. Providing water in a disaster is vital to preventing the spread of disease and helping the community to recover. In addition, the disaster itself may threaten water supplies, such as contaminants brought in by floods, or water requirements needed to combat fires as a result of earthquakes.

What Donors Are Doing

  • The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation has set a goal of providing safe drinking water to 1 million people—primarily among the most poor in Africa, Mexico, and India–over the next five years in a $50 million initiative. The foundation is targeting programs that are sustainable and scalable, supporting local and national initiatives in target countries, and developing and implementing sector-wide knowledge. The foundation has supported WASH initiatives for more than two decades.
  • The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has committed more than $200 million in resources to developing technology for waterless toilets that do not require piped water or sewers through the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge. The foundation also supports programs in the policy and advocacy arenas, as well as those that develop wide-scale implementation of rural sanitation programs.
  • The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation has targeted urban slum dwellers in India with more than $1.2 million in microfinance grants.
  • To improve safe water access in China—where 119 million people are without it—the Richard and Rhonda Goldman Fund awarded $100,000 to the Asia Foundation to develop clean water projects throughout the region.
  • The PepsiCo Foundation recently awarded $8 million to scale the WaterCredit initiative in India. The program, an initiative of Water.org, provides microfinance loans to help households in India install clean water and toilets.

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