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Water, Sanitation and Hygiene: How Small Changes Make a Big Difference

Sanitation and hygiene are the two lesser-known partners in WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene), but they have an enormous impact on public health around the world.

Nearly 750 million people, more than one in ten people in the world, lack clean, safe water. But 2.5 billion, one in three people in the world, lack adequate sanitation. Most of these individuals live in developing countries, or the majority world, and in conditions of poverty and marginalization. The vast majority of people without clean water and sanitation live in rural areas.[1]

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Sanitation and hygiene washing hands
Providing access to sufficient amounts of safe water, building adequate sanitation facilities (even a simple latrine), and introducing effective hygiene behaviors are essential to reducing the burden of disease worldwide. Preventable water-borne diseases like diarrheal disease are contracted by a lack of safe water, adequate sanitation and hygiene practices.[2] Diarrheal disease affects nearly 1.7 billion people each year, and is the second leading cause of death in children under five worldwide.[3] Nearly 1,600 children die every day as a result of diarrhea (one every minute), adding up to 580,000 worldwide each year.[4]

“Inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene result not only in more sickness and death, but also in higher health costs, lower worker productivity, lower school enrollment and retention rates of girls and, perhaps most importantly, the denial of the rights of all people to live in dignity.”[5]

Creating Sustainable Change with WASH

To achieve the greatest health benefits, improvements in access to safe, clean water, adequate sanitation, and hygiene education must be made together. Together, these three aspects of development are commonly referred to as “WASH.” Alone, each of these three aspects reduces disease by 11-44 percent, but when combined, water, sanitation, and hygiene reduce the number of deaths caused by diarrhaeal diseases at a much higher rate.[6] The most commonly cited statistic is that safe, clean water, sanitation, and hygiene together can reduce mortality by an average of 65 percent,[7] but in Lifewater’s experience, many communities that experience WASH interventions have seen diarrhea reduced at an even higher rate than this.

It isn’t hard to understand the relationship between water, hygiene and sanitation and how they all depend on each other. Without a clean, safe source of water nearby it is nearly impossible for communities to have adequate sanitation facilities or practice good hygiene. Likewise, without proper sanitation and hygiene, safe water will become contaminated and water projects will no longer work to improve health.

Simple Practices to Improve Sanitation and Hygiene

Clean water must be kept clean from the source to the point of use, so knowing how to put it in clean containers (often jerry cans or earthen jars) and keep it from contamination is essential. Fecal matter and other pollution must be kept from contaminating the water source. Hands that prepare food and interact with children and neighbors must be free from harmful pathogens. Open defecation leads to the spread of harmful pathogens through feet, hands, flies, food, and water. If handwashing with soap is not practiced, germs and disease can spread rapidly. Likewise, effective handwashing requires clean water.

Lifewater addresses the global water, sanitation and hygiene crisis through equipping communities in Africa and Asia with materials, technical training, and education to achieve and maintain safe water access, adequate sanitation and effective hygiene. To achieve maximum benefits, and to ensure that our work is sustainable, Lifewater works to equip communities with a strong foundation in knowledge and awareness of the various sources of disease and illness, as well as practical and culturally-sensitive solutions to stop the spread of disease.

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

[2] United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Pneumonia and diarrhea: Tackling the deadliest diseases for the world’s poorest children (New York: UNICEF 2012), 5.

[3] “Diarrhoeal disease: Fact Sheet #330,” World Health Organization, last modified April 2013, http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs330/en. See also United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Pneumonia and diarrhea: Tackling the deadliest diseases for the world’s poorest children (New York: UNICEF 2012), 5.

[4] United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Committing to Child Survival: A Promise Renewed, Progress Report 2013 (New York: UNICEF 2013), 25.

[5] WHO and UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme, Global water supply and sanitation assessment 2000 report (Geneva and New York, 2000), at v.

[6] Lorna Fewtrell, Rachel B Kaufmann, David Kay, Wayne Enanoria, Laurence Haller and Jr, John M Colford, 2005. “Water, sanitation, and hygiene interventions to reduce diarrhoea in less developed countries: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” The Lancet Infectious Diseases Vol. 5, Iss. 1 (Jan 2005): 42-52.

[7] WHO and UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme, Global water supply and sanitation assessment 2000 report (Geneva and New York, 2000), at v.