Water and environment

UNICEF works with governments to achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all

Young girls wash their hands at an EU-funded, UNICEF-supported water point in Somaliland.


Among UNICEF’s programming regions, Eastern and Southern Africa ranks lowest in access to at least basic drinking water services.

Over 226 million people in ESA (47 per cent) have no access to at least basic drinking water services.

The highest burden is in countries like Ethiopia (61 million), Uganda (27 million) and Tanzania (24 million). Water supply in institutions (schools and heath care facilities) is not any better. In schools, for example, over 78 million (42 per cent) school-age children have no access to drinking water services in schools.

In efforts to accelerate access to drinking water services in the region, financing is a major bottleneck which needs to be addressed. There is also an increasing shift of populations from rural to urban areas and an exponential growth of small towns, which has great implications on UNICEF programming, which has been mainly rural. Urbanization presents its own challenges, especially in the unplanned areas, currently characterized by poor service delivery and which are epicenters of WASH related public health epidemics such as cholera.

Even where there is access to improved sources, contamination of these water sources and supply systems mainly from poor sanitation and other environmental activities is an increasing challenge in the region. For example, in Ethiopia, only 28 per cent of population with access to basic drinking water services was reported to have access safely managed services, while in Uganda, the proportion is even much lower, standing at only 15 per cent, indicating that most of the improved drinking water sources in the region could be contaminated.  

Another key contributor to the growing water crisis is climate change. The region is experiencing droughts and floods that threaten quality and quantity of water. With cholera being endemic in the region, any extreme weather – whether droughts or floods – leads to outbreaks of cholera and other water-borne epidemics. Climate change also impacts heavily on sanitation and hygiene as water scarcity and flooding leads to communities abandoning important sanitation and hygiene behaviors such as use of flooded toilets or toilets that use flushing water and even handwashing. Climate changes are also driving displacement (refugees, IDPs).

Finally, poor management of water supply services is affecting their sustainability. As in other regions in the developing world, the region experiences failure of water systems before their life time, has a high proportion of non-functional systems especially handpumps, breakdown rates are high, and cost-recovery is poor.

Two students push a wheelbarrow holding a jerry can of water


UNICEF works with partners to provide programming inputs targets three levels of intervention depending on country context: the waterpoint level, the water service level and the water sector level. This is done in all contexts – urban or rural, development or humanitarian – targeting the most vulnerable. At each of these levels, support addresses access to drinking water, water safety and the sustainability of services and water sources. Some of the solutions include:

Strengthening sector policies, institutions and monitoring

UNICEF supports a range of interventions to improve governance and build national enabling environments, with a focus on sustainability and monitoring for accountability. UNICEF contributes to an effective and accountable water sector; reliable regulation for oversight; performance monitoring, sound pricing and tariffs to ensure affordability; models for service management and operations. There is an increased focus on strengthening regulation and accountability frameworks for service providers and developing a range of robust service models for management, operation and maintenance of water supply systems.

Water supply service delivery and sustainability

Innovations are being supported by UNICEF across the region to move beyond community managed approaches and to explore Public Private Partnerships. Monitoring tools are being enhanced through Sustainability Checks and Audits. Urban service delivery options are being adapted for rural settings and tariff and regulations are being designed to be pro poor.

Sector financing

UNICEF is exploring the use of some innovative financing models (see Figure 1). For example, UNICEF in ESAR is working with European Investment Bank (EIB), KfW and the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA) to identify and implement bankable projects, in a blended financing mode, especially in urban areas. With the Global Climate Fund (GCF), UNICEF is working with governments to attract funding to address enhance implementation of climate resilience WASH interventions in the region.

Alternative financing options graphic

Water safety planning

UNICEF works with governments for the adoption of national water safety frameworks and community level water safety planning, including managing risks to water quality from the water source to the point of consumption. UNICEF mobilizes and enables households and communities to steward local water resources and demand safe water.

Climate resilient WASH

UNICEF will continue working with partners to reinforce services and behaviors that are more resilient to the impacts of climate change. UNICEF will scale up promising innovations like the use of remote sensing and hydrogeological data to target groundwater resources for deeply drilled boreholes − sources that can supply pastoralist communities with safe water during drought as currently done in Ethiopia. Smart water solutions solar powered water supply systems that offer more sustainable and economically beneficial solutions will be explored. These solutions also reduce the water sector’s carbon footprint.

Urban WASH

With shifting populations to urban areas, UNICEF in ESAR continues to build capacity and enhance programming urban areas and small towns. Programming in urban areas and small towns provides the greatest potential to bridge the humanitarian and development divide, while addressing key public health epidemics such as cholera, which are endemic in our region.

Louse Joseph, a plumber, opens a water and gate valve.
In Uganda, UNICEF (with funding from KOICA) is upgrading water, sanitation and hygiene facilities in health centres in the Karamoja sub-region to improve the quality of health care.