Water and Children

In the United States, we have good reason to expect that our children will grow up healthy. A major reason why we can hope for a good future for our little ones is that we have a reliable clean water supply. Yet in many regions of the world, water is a silent enemy. Communities without safe water constantly face serious threats to their children’s health. Currently, approximately 750 million people live without a source of safe water.[1]


Unsafe water makes children sick and leads to devastating numbers of children dying of preventable diseases every year. About 1.7 billion people suffer from diarrheal disease each year, and it is the second leading cause of death in children under five.[2] Those under the age of five are especially vulnerable to the serious effects of unsafe water, a lack of hygiene, and inadequate sanitation facilities and practices. Many children in the majority world, in places like Sub-Saharan Africa and many parts of Asia, live with constant diarrhea caused by lack of safe water and sanitation. Each year approximately 580,000 children die from diarrheal disease, about 1,600 each day, or one every minute.[3]

In addition to diarrheal diseases, children suffer from other water-related illnesses that most parents in the U.S. have scarcely heard of. These include trachoma, which causes blindness and for which over 48 million people were treated in 2012;[4] and diseases caused by parasitic worms, like schistosomiasis, which affects nearly 250 million people today.[5] Any one of these diseases can devastate a community’s young population.

One of the most common symptoms of water-borne disease is diarrhea, which is defined as three or more incidents of non-formed stools per day. Many children in the developing world live with constant diarrhea caused by water-related illnesses. The young ones are plagued by dehydration, fatigue, and weakened immune systems. Diarrhea also contributes to malnutrition, stunted growth, and cognitive impairment. It is almost impossible for children with diarrhea or their parents to keep the watery feces from contaminating other people. Disease spreads rapidly.

Heavy labor

In communities without easy access to water, children are often the ones designated to haul it long distances to their homes. Water weighs 8 pounds per gallon, so a child providing a family of four with 16 gallons (just 4 gallons per person) of water per day must carry daily 128 pounds of water. Children must transport this heavy burden from water sources that are up to several miles away.

The heavy labor of carrying water often causes neck and back problems that afflict children their entire lives. Sending children long distances to retrieve water also puts them in danger of accidents, abduction, and physical or sexual assault.

Lack of education

Children in communities lacking accessible clean water often miss school. The demands of retrieving water for their families leave little time or energy for studies. In addition, children are often too sick from water-related diseases to go to school, or the embarrassment of diarrhea keeps them home. In some cases, schools must be suspended or closed to stop the spread of disease.

Lifewater is working in several countries to help children and their families get safe water. We have learned that by teaching children the importance of using safe water, we are reaching families and communities quickly and also training the next generation. Through Lifewater’s WASH in Schools program, thousands of children will gain access to safe water and the tools to use it and keep it safe for years to come.


[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] “Diarrhoeal disease: Fact Sheet #330,” World Health Organization, last modified April 2013, 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).

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

[4] “Trachoma: Status of endemicity for blinding trachoma, 2012”, World Health Organization, last modified 2013.

[5] “Schistosomiasis: Status of schistosomiasis endemic countries, 2012”, World Health Organization, last modified 2013.