Media centre

Press releases

UNICEF's positions


Contact the media team


Children dying daily because of unsafe water supplies and poor sanitation and hygiene, UNICEF says

World Water Day 2013
© UNICEF/MAMA2010-00004/Oo
Drinking unsafe water can be harmful for children, causing waterborne diseases such as diarrhoea, cholera, intestinal worms and typhoid. A boy drinks water from Mann creek at Einma village in Singu Township, Magway Division, Myanmar.

BANGKOK/NEW YORK, 22 March 2013 – As the world celebrates World Water Day today, UNICEF urges governments, civil society and ordinary citizens across East Asia and the Pacific to remember that behind the statistics are the faces of children.

Globally, an estimated 2,000 children under the age of five die every day from diarrhoeal diseases and of these some 1,800 deaths are linked directly to poor water, sanitation and hygiene.

“Sometimes we focus so much on the big numbers, that we fail to see the human tragedies that underlie each statistic,” says Sanjay Wijesekera, global head of UNICEF’s water, sanitation and hygiene programme.

“If 90 school buses filled with kindergartners were to crash every day, with no survivors, the world would take notice. But this is precisely what happens every single day because of poor water, sanitation and hygiene.”

Almost 90 per cent of child deaths from diarrhoeal diseases are directly linked to contaminated water, lack of sanitation, or inadequate hygiene. Despite a burgeoning global population, these deaths have come down significantly over the last decade, from 1.2 million per year in 2000 to about 760,000 a year in 2011. UNICEF says that is still too many.

UNICEF child mortality data show that about half of under-five deaths occur in only five countries: India, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Pakistan and China. Two countries –  India (24 per cent) and Nigeria (11 per cent) – together account for more than a third of all under-five deaths. These same countries also have significant populations without improved water and sanitation.  

Of the 783 million people worldwide without improved drinking water, there are 119 million in China. Pneumonia and diarrhoea remain the biggest killers of children under five in the region, and both are linked to poor quality water or insufficient water for proper hygiene, as well as poor sanitation. Most of the preventable child deaths occur in the poorest families. Malnutrition, which remains high, is a contributing factor.

World Water Day 2013
© UNICEF Timor-Leste
Nine-year-old Elezete climbs up a steep path carrying jerry cans (10 kilos) of water. In Timor-Leste, 87 per cent of rural households still don’t have access to piped water.

The figures for sanitation are even bleaker. Across the region, 671 million people remain without access to improved sanitation — more than in sub-Saharan Africa. An estimated 100 million people still practice open defecation in the region, with three countries among the 12 worldwide with the most people still practicing open defecation (Indonesia 2nd in the world with 63 million, China – 14 million and Cambodia – 8.6 million). Improvements in water and sanitation would greatly contribute to reducing child deaths. 
The economic costs of poor sanitation and hygiene in East Asia and the Pacific run into the billions of dollars – including an estimated 9.2 billion dollars for Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, the Philippines, and Viet Nam alone – undermining national development, and children’s development, in every way.
“The numbers can be numbing, but they represent real lives, of real children,” says Wijesekera. “Every child is important. Every child has the right to health, the right to survive, the right to a future that is as good as we can make it.

“If, in the development community, we are not looking daily at the faces of children, we will miss the mark by a considerable distance.”

But gains are being made across East Asia and the Pacific which show the significant progress the region is making over the past 20 years. Some 823 million additional adults and children had access to improved sanitation facilities in 2010 compared to 1990, with China alone accounting for nearly 593 million. Region-wide, 677 million more people have access to improved drinking water compared with 20 years ago.

In September 2012, at a ministerial conference in Indonesia, South East Asian governments committed to making it a priority to deliver sanitation services to their unserved populations and to end open defecation in the region by 2015. 

Wijesekera says the progress already made since 1990 shows that with the political will, with investment, with a focus on equity and on reaching the hardest to reach, every child should be able to get access to improved drinking water and sanitation, perhaps within a generation.
# # ## # #

UNICEF works in more than 190 countries and territories to help children survive and thrive, from early childhood through adolescence. The world’s largest provider of vaccines for developing countries, UNICEF supports child health and nutrition, good water and sanitation, quality basic education for all boys and girls, and the protection of children from violence, exploitation, and AIDS. UNICEF is funded entirely by the voluntary contributions of individuals, businesses, foundations and governments. For more information about UNICEF and its work visit:

Follow us on Twitter

For further information, please contact:
Geoffrey Keele, UNICEF East-Asia and Pacific Regional Communication Specialist, +662-356-9407,

Chris de Bono, UNICEF East-Asia and Pacific Regional Communication Chief, +662-356-9408,



 Email this article

unite for children