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Global WASH Health Burden

Global WASH - Health Burden [PDF 1 page]

Water is considered to be the most important resource for sustaining ecosystems, which provide life-supporting services for people, animals, and plants 1. Because contaminated water is a major cause of illness and death, water quality is a determining factor in human poverty, education, and economic opportunities 2.

Unfortunately, worldwide water quality is declining, threatening the health of ecosystems and humans worldwide 2. Various factors influence this deterioration, including population growth, rapid urbanization, land use, industrial discharge of chemicals, and factors resulting from climate change.

	contaminated watering hole

Hundreds of millions of people worldwide do not have access to clean, safe water.

Today, hundreds of millions of people do not have access to improved sources of drinking water 3, leaving them at risk for water-, sanitation-, and hygiene- (WASH) related diseases. Worldwide in 2010, 801,000 children died from diarrheal illnesses, most of which are caused by unsafe water, poor sanitation, and inadequate hygiene 4. Devastating epidemics of cholera, such as the 2010-2011 outbreak in Haiti that caused more than 500,000 cases of illness and 7,000 deaths, are only the “tip of the iceberg,” as most waterborne diseases, illnesses, and deaths are never reported 5.

Responding to these challenges requires a spectrum of interventions. The prevention or minimization of water pollution is critical to improving drinking water quality. Interventions to improve drinking water quality range from disinfecting water at the household level [point-of-use (POU) treatment] to water management at the community level [Water Safety Plans (WSPs)]. In some situations, more than one type of intervention is needed. For example, both POU treatment and WSPs may be needed for piped water systems with intermittent service. When this happens, the different interventions are complementary, not competitive.


  1. The United Nations Environmental Programme (2009), Report: Water security and ecosystem services: The critical connection.[PDF - 56 pages] UNEP, Nairobi, Kenya. ISBN: 92-807-3018-0.
  2. World Water Assessment Programme (2009), The United Nations World Water Development Report 3: Water in a Changing World. UNESCO: Paris and Earthscan: London. [PDF - 349 pages]
  3. World Health Organization and UNICEF. Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation: 2012 Update. United States: WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation; 2012.
  4. Liu L, Johnson HL, Cousens S, Perin J, Scott S, Lawn JE, Rudan I, Campbell H, Cibulskis R, Li M, Mathers C, Black RE. Child Health Epidemiology Reference Group of WHO and UNICEF. Global, regional, and national causes of child mortality: an updated systematic analysis for 2010 with time trends since 2000. Lancet. 2012 Jun 9;379(9832):2151-61
  5. Mintz ED, Guerrant RL. A Lion in Our Village – The Unconscionable Tragedy of Cholera in Africa.[PDF - 4 pages] N Engl J Med. 2009;360:1060-1063.