Sanitation and the Environment

The current global water and sanitation crisis creates a profoundly negative impact on the environment. Water is the fundamental part of ecosystems and everything within a watershed is connected. The connectedness means that the use of a river or aquifer in one area will affect and be affected by its use in another area, even far away. When sewage and waste enters a water source, the effects can be geographically widespread. People get sick from drinking the contaminated water or eating the plants and animals that rely on it.

In developing nations, approximately 90 percent of sewage and wastewater is emptied into rivers, lakes and nearby streams, polluting some of the same resources which people use as drinking water.[1] Along with polluting drinking water sources, discharging untreated sewage pollutes the environment and affects plant and aquatic life. According to research studies by the United Nations Environment Programme, coastal habitats, fisheries, marine wildlife and the individuals near several large coastal areas, including the South Asian Sea, are threatened mostly from untreated sewage discharge into coastal waters due to polluted watersheds, making some of the water completely unusable.[2]

Improving access to water and sanitation improves the environment by allowing for the appropriate disposal of human waste. Access to ecologically sustainable sanitation technologies helps provide a healthier living environment for all people. Approximately 2.5 billion people live without improved sanitation – even a simple latrine – and 1 billion people practice open defecation, the vast majority of these people living in rural areas.[3] As these people gain access to latrines and the practice of open defecation declines, large areas around the world could experience dramatic increases to environmental quality, especially water quality, and health. Lifewater is working with in-country partners and communities to improve access to safe water and adequate sanitation by promoting healthy sanitation practices and training people to design and build sustainable sanitation systems in their own communities.


[1] Corcoran et al (eds.), Sick Water: The Central Role of Wastewater Management in Sustainable Development (UNEP, UN-HABITAT: 2010), 5.

[2] “Seas in Asia, North West Pacific and West Africa at Highest Risk from Land-Based Pollution,” UNEP, last modified Oct. 3 2002,

[3] WHO and UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation, Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation: 2014 Update (Geneva: WHO Press, 2014), 8.


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