UNICEF Resource Centre

Fact Sheets



Water, Environment and Sanitation

UNICEF’s long standing support for improving water supply, sanitation and hygiene stems from a firm conviction and based on sound evidence that these are central to ensuring the rights of children. 

In fact, it is essential for children to survive, grow and develop into healthy and fulfilled citizens of the world. In the broader context, UNICEF’s activities in Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) contribute to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals.

Fast Facts

Hand washing with soap, particularly after contact with excreta, can reduce diarrhoeal diseases by over 40 per cent and respiratory infections by 30 per cent.  Diarrhoea and respiratory infections are the number one cause for child deaths in India.

Hand washing with soap is among the most effective and inexpensive ways to prevent diarrhoeal diseases and pneumonia.

With 638 million people defecating in the open and 44 per cent mothers disposing their children’s faeces in the open, there is a very high risk of microbial contamination (bacteria, viruses, amoeba) of water which causes diarrhoea in children.

Children weakened by frequent diarrhoea episodes are more vulnerable to malnutrition and opportunistic infections such as pneumonia. About 48 per cent of children in India are suffering from some degree of malnutrition. Diarrhoea and worm infection are two major health conditions that affect school age children impacting their learning abilities.

Adequate, well-maintained water supply and sanitation facilities in schools encourage children to attend school regularly and help them achieve their educational goals. Inadequate water supply and sanitation in schools are health hazards and affect school attendance, retention and educational performance.

Adolescent girls are especially vulnerable to dropping out, as many are reluctant to continue their schooling because toilet facilities are not private, not safe or simply not available

Women and girls face shame and a loss of personal dignity and safety risk if there is no toilet at home. They have to wait for the night to relieve themselves to avoid being seen by others.


It is estimated that

• Only 31 per cent of India’s population use improved sanitation (2008)
• In rural India 21 per cent use improved sanitation facilities (2008)
• One Hundred Forty Five million people in rural India gained access to improved sanitation between 1990-2008
• Two hundred and Eleven Million people gained access to improved sanitation in whole of India between 1990-2008
• India is home to 638 million people defecating in the open; over 50 per cent of the population.
• In Bangladesh and Brazil, only seven per cent of the population defecate in the open. In China, only four per cent of the population defecate in the open.


• 88 per cent of the population of 1.2 billion has access to drinking water from improved sources in 2008, as compared to 68 per cent in 1990.
• Only a quarter the total population in India has drinking water on their premise.
• Women, who have to collect the drinking water, are vulnerable to a number of unsafe practices. Only 13 per cent of adult males collect water.
• Sixty seven per cent of Indian households do not treat their drinking water, even though it could be chemically or bacterially contaminated.


• According to the Public Health Association, only 53 per cent of the population wash hands with soap after defecation, 38 per cent wash hands with soap before eating and only 30 per cent wash hands with soap before preparing food.
• Only 11 per cent of the Indian rural families dispose child stools safely. 80 per cent children’s stools are left in the open or thrown into the garbage.
• Only 6 per cent of rural children less than five years of age use toilets.   
• WASH Interventions significantly reduce diarrhoeal morbidity; statistically it has been shown that:

• Handwashing with soap reduces it by 44 per cent
• Household water treatment by 39 per cent
• Sanitation by 36 per cent
• Water supply by 23 per cent
• Source water treatment by 11 per cent.

Key Issues

• Newborn Infants: Hand washing by birth attendants before delivery has been shown to reduce mortality rates by 19 per cent while a 4 per cent reduction in risk of death was found if mothers washed their hands prior to handling their newborns.

• Children under five years: Poor WASH causes diarrhoea, which is the second biggest cause of death in children under five years. Diarrhoea is an immediate cause of under nutrition

• School-aged children: Children prefer to attend schools having adequate and private WASH facilities. Schools provide an excellent opportunity for children to learn about hygiene practices.

• Older Girls: Giving girls the knowledge and facilities necessary for good menstrual hygiene is key to their dignity, their privacy, their educational achievement and their health. Adolescent girls are empowered through improved menstrual hygiene management.

• Mothers and Caregivers: Hand washing with soap at critical times is important for protecting the health of the whole family. By being a role model, mothers and caregivers can also help instill in their children the good hygiene practices which will serve them for life.

• Children in emergencies: During emergencies, children are especially vulnerable to the effects of inadequate access to water and sanitation services. WASH is a key component of any emergency response.

Chemical contamination in water ensuring water quality at the source is crucial. In India, there is a widespread natural occurrence of arsenic and fluoride in the groundwater. UNICEF is supporting Government of India programs on arsenic and fluoride mitigation and identifying water quality testing technologies which are appropriate for use in field situations.

All emergencies cause disruption to basic services. People are less likely to be able to drink safe water, use basic sanitation facilities and maintain improved hygiene practices. Children, especially those under the age of five, are particularly vulnerable to the diseases which can result during emergencies.

These diseases include diarrhoea, cholera, typhoid, respiratory infections, skin and eye infections which are all likely to occur when water supplies and sanitation services are disrupted. UNICEF has set out minimum standards of response for any emergency situation. These describe the life saving actions which UNICEF will take within the first six to eight weeks of an emergency, along with the longer term role in the subsequent weeks and months.


UNICEF supports the national and state governments in developing and implementing a range of replicable intervention models for sanitation, hygiene and water supply. UNICEF’s Childs Environment Programme in India supports the government’s flagship programmes of Total Sanitation Campaign to improve access to and use of sanitation facilities and the National Rural Drinking Water Programme to provide adequate safe water to every rural household in India. 

The Childs Environment program also works with Sarva Siksha Abhiyan and Integrated Child Development Services, to promote hygiene water and sanitation services in schools, Anganwadi centers and health centers with lasting outcomes.





UNICEF action on the Child’s Environment

  • Improve the child’s household hygiene and sanitation environment

  • Improve the child’s school environment

  • Improve community management and sustainability of water and sanitation interventions

  • For every child
Health, Education, Equality, Protection