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Water, Sanitation and Hygiene



Although progress has been made, lack of access to safe water and sanitation remains a problem for millions of people across the world. 


What is the problem?

Inadequate access to safe water and sanitation services, coupled with poor hygiene practices, kills and sickens thousands of children every day It leads to impoverishment and diminished opportunities for thousands more.

According to the latest estimates of the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation (JMP), released in early 2013 (collected in 2011) ...




In 2011, 89% of the world's population used improved drinking water supplies (1% above the MDG target)

This left 768 million people (1 in 10 of the world's population) using unsafe drinking water sources. Of these 

  • 83% (636 million) live in rural areas.

  • 40% live in sub-Saharan Africa

Of those who have access to piped drinking water, 38% (6.2 billion) do not have this in their own home and go elsewhere to collect it. 




In 2011, 64% of the world's population used improved sanitation facilities (the MDG target for 2015 being 75%).

This left 2.5 billion people (36% of the world’s population) lacking improved sanitation facilities.

The number of people practicing open defecation decreased to a little over 1 billion, but this still represents 15% of the global population.


The share of people relying on untreated surface water as their main drinking water source dropped from 6 per cent in 1990 to 3 per cent in 2011. Over 180 million people rely on rivers, streams, ponds or lakes to meet their daily drinking water needs.

People living in rural areas are less likely to have access to improved water and sanitation facilities. 

Poor people are amongst the most affected and, especially in urban areas, may pay high prices for small amounts of often poor quality water.

For both water and sanitation there continue to be major disparities among WHO regions.

  • Water coverage is only 56% in Oceania and 63% in sub-Saharan Africa, but all other regions have coverage rates of 86% or higher. 
  • Sanitation coverage is lowest in sub-Saharan Africa, Oceania and South Asia, where 70% and 64% and 59% of people do not have access to improved sanitation respectively.


As a consequence, over 500,000 children die every year (1,400/day) from diarrhoea caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation. 


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Associated problems

People without piped water to their home spend valuable time and energy queuing up at public water points. They carry heavy loads of water home, that often meet only minimal drinking water needs. The most affected are the poorest and most marginalized people in society. Many of these, especially in urban areas, pay high prices for small amounts of often poor quality water.

Children – and particularly girls – are denied their right to education because their schools lack private and decent sanitation facilities. Women are forced to spend large parts of their day fetching water. Poor farmers and wage earners are less productive due to illness, health systems are overwhelmed and national economies suffer.


Women and Water

Women in particular are affected by poor access to clean water and sanitation facilities and miss out on opportunities for education, productive activities or leisure time.

The Inter-agency Task Force on Gender and Water (GWTF), a sub-programme of both UN-Water and the Interagency Network on Women and Gender Equality (IANWGE) produced the following policy brief in support of the International Decade for Action, ‘Water for Life,’ 2005–2015.






Freedom from imprisonment by daylight 

In many cultures, the only time available for women or girls to defecate, if they don't have a latrine, is after dark. Apart from the discomfort caused by the long wait, this can cause serious illness. And there is also a risk of harassment and assault during the night-time walk to and from the communal defecation fields.

School enrolment and attendance

The lack of safe, separate and private sanitation and washing facilities in schools is one of the main factors preventing girls from attending school, particularly when menstruating.

Reduce the burden of caring for the sick 

The health and lives of more than half the world's children are constantly threatened by environmental hazards as they get sick through contact with excreta in their environment. Caring for sick children adds to the already heavy workload of women and girls.

Protect pregnant women from diseases

About 44 million pregnant women have sanitation-related hookworm infections that pose a considerable health burden in developing societies.

Source : UNICEF : Water, Sanitation and Hygiene - WASH and Women



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MDG 7 : What is the UN trying to achieve?

The UN is addressing this challenge under the umbrella of its Millenium Development Goal 7 (MDG7). 



"To ensure environmental sustainability".


Within MDG7 there are several targets. 



"To halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation." 




Improved drinking water source

One that hygienically separates human excreta from human contact.

Improved sanitaton facility

One that hygienically separates human excreta from human contact.


Sources : 

WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation

WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation : Refining the Definitions


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How is it doing this?

The WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) Programme is a central componant of the millenium development agenda. Often delivered in collaboration with other organisations it has three main componants

                • Provision of water and sanitation services
                • Behavioural change
                • Supportive environments

The lead is taken by UNICEF (United Nations Children International Children's Emergency Fund) 

UNICEF is also working to meet a second target. This is to 

ensure that all schools have adequate child-friendly water and sanitation facilities and hygiene education programmes.


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What progress has been made?

The UN publication We Can End Poverty, UN Mlllenium Development Goals and beyond 2015  provides the following information.



In 1990 76% of the world's population had access to improved water sources. 

By 2010 a further 2 billion people gained similar access to raise the proportion to 89%, which meant that the target had been reached 5 years ahead of schedule. 

However, this leaves 768 million people (2011) who need access to an improved source of drinking water.



In 1990, just under half (49 per cent) of the global population had improved sanitation.

  • Between 1990 to 2010, 1.9 billion people gained access to a latrine, flush toilet or other improved sanitation facility.

A further 1 billion people need similar access to achieve the 75% MDG7 target. 

It is unlikely that the MDG sanitation target will be met. 


Without significant improvements in sanitation access and hygiene practices, the MDGs related to child mortality, primary education, disease reduction, and poverty eradication will not be achieved.


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Organisations involved in water, sanitation and hygiene work

Oxfam Water

Oxfam works on a range of issues related to water both in terms of long term develpment and in rapid response to emergency situations requiring the supply of clean water e.g. earthquakes, floods. All work is carried out in collaboratioin with local communities. 



Established in 1981, Wateraid works with the poorest and most marginalised communities to set up water, sanitation and hygiene projects to meet their needs. It does this in collaboration with with local partners e.g. NGOs, local and national governments, private utility companies. 


Water Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP)

Established in 2005, WSUP emphasises planning to achieve sustainable change at scale. It does this by demonstrating financially viable approaches to serving low income areas, and using this as a basis for advocating for wider scale up of such approaches by service providers and local and national governments and their partners, the multilateral financing institutions.

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Further Sources of information

UNICEF : Water, Sanitation and Hygiene

UN Deputy Secretary General's Call to Action on Sanitation, 21st March, 2013 

Millenium Development Goals Report, 2013

We Can End Poverty : Millenium Development Goals and Beyond 2015 : Fact Sheet on Goal 7

Water Policy Programme of the Overseas Develoment Institute

Water and Sanitation : Addressing Inequalities


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