Goal: Ensure environmental sustainability

UNICEF image

Target by 2015:
Reduce by half the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.

Safe water and sanitation are critical for survival.

The urgent unmet need for safe water and sanitation in the developing world is the basis for many other problems.  Unclean water spreads diseases such as cholera and infant diarrhoea, which kill millions of people per year, mainly children. And poor health harms children’s learning potential.

Children – mainly girls – forced to walk long distances for safe water are, in effect, barred from attending school. The lack of a latrine severely affects their health and dignity in other ways. They may have to wait until night to relieve themselves for safety and modesty. And their household roles mean they can more easily transmit disease to the family if they don’t have water for good hygiene. Sick, pregnant and post-partum women are most likely to suffer from lack of sanitation and to pass disease on to their children.

It’s not that there isn’t enough water to go around. Lacking are the commitments of governments, the technology to help ensure good water and sanitation, and the money to put water programmes into place.

UNICEF responds by:

Helping governments improve technology and hygiene education. Country policies and programmes that promote sustainable development are critical to conserving water resources. With decades of experience in this area, UNICEF is a key UN agency at the country level. When governments are able to adequately treat and dispose of wastewater, it leads to better conservation and less waste of fresh water. Using water resources carefully also prevents contamination and lessens the need for water treatment.

In collaboration with partners like the EU Water Initiative, the US Environmental Protection Agency and the International Water Association, UNICEF works to get support from governments for these goals, and helps them to develop low-cost water and sanitation programmes. It also promotes hygiene education at the community level. One key component, for example, is teaching mothers good hygiene to help young children get a good start in life.

Along with the World Health Organization, UNICEF also tracks progress on global water and sanitation goals through the Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP). The JMP monitors trends in coverage, helps countries monitor their own capacities, develops questionnaires, indicators and definitions, and informs policy makers through web sites and publications.

Building community and household water security. UNICEF helps governments and partners implement community-based water quality surveillance systems to screen contaminants like human faeces, arsenic, fluoride and nitrates. UNICEF also promotes a range of appropriate, low-cost sanitation, water and hand-washing facilities. Communities are given the tools and the opportunity help design and choose basic technologies that can be gradually upgraded, like rain water harvesting systems, shallow wells and pond filtering systems.

UNICEF involves local citizens in projects like women, the primary stakeholders in the area of domestic water supply and sanitation, traditional leaders, faith-based and other community organizations and local entrepreneurs.

Helping schools give children a good start. UNICEF, together with its partners at global and country level, helps improves sanitation and promote hygiene, like handwashing, in schools.  Providing safe water and latrines, especially for girls, encourages them to go to school. Schools also teach health and hygiene skills on that can lead to life-long positive habits. Lastly, it is cost-effective to work with children in contained, school-based programmes.

Providing emergency interventions. UNICEF is a global leader in emergency responses to natural and man-made disasters, coordinating partners in the areas of sanitation, hygiene and water supply. UNICEF also aims to provide a seamless transition from emergency response to sustainable water and sanitation programmes. In the short term, UNICEF might disseminate water, containers and water purification tablets and help build pit latrines. Longer-term help might be large-scale drilling and hand pump installation programmes.


The world is on track to meet the target for drinking water, but those without access still number in the billions. Obstacles to progress there including conflict and political instability, high rates of population growth, and low priority given to water and sanitation. On sanitation, five regions – South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, West Asia, Eurasia and Oceania – are not on track to meet the target. Many of those without improved sanitation are hard to reach, living in remote rural areas, displaced by war and famine, or mired in an endless cycle of poverty and disease. These challenges will require dedicated attention to meet the 2015 goals.

Read Thematic Paper on MDG 7: Ensure environmental sustainability  [PDF]