Pipes and progeny

How access to clean water prevents malnutrition in children.

Helene Sandbu Ryeng
A boy is given ready-to-use therapeutic food
22 May 2020

It is an intricate system of pumps, chambers, chemicals and pipes, which all have to be aligned for the magic to happen. The water treatment plant in Wau is turning dirty water into potable water, essential for preventing malnutrition. How, you might wonder? I’ll tell you in a bit.

A water treatment plant
The water treatment plant in Wau

Abraham Abino is 14 months old, but not running around like his peers, yet it looks like he has been running a marathon. He is leaning against his mother’s chest, not using a single muscle to sit. “Abraham had strong diarrhoea, that's why we came here", his mother Akuc Deng says. At the UNICEF supported outpatient treatment centre in the Wau, Abraham is screened and found to be suffering from severe acute malnutrition. “The first time we came we was moderately malnourished, but the diarrhoea wouldn’t stop so his condition continued to deteriorate, and we had to come back.”

Abraham’s story is quite common in South Sudan, only 40 per cent of the population has access to clean water. The rest is drinking dirty water filled with various bacteria which often leads to acute watery diarrhoea among both adults and children, but it is the tiniest among us that are hit the hardest. Their bodies are not robust, and the diarrhoea is flushing out essential nutrients. In just a few days, a toddler can lose several kilos and become severely malnourished- a deadly condition if not treated.

A man entering a building with a sign saying chlorine house over the door.
The chlorine room is where the chlorine is added to the water, making it ready for consumption.

Back at the water treatment plant in Wau. The generator is growling as it produces energy for the plant. Water is moving from one chamber to another and carefully measured amounts of chlorine is added to kill the bacteria that make children sick. In a day, 6,000 m3 of clean water is produced, serving a population of 120,000 people who are healthier because of the clean water.

Back at the nutrition centre, Abraham is given ready-to-use therapeutic food which is UNICEF’s number one medicine for malnutrition. If there are no complications, Abraham should bounce back to normal weight in about 8 weeks. Already after a few weeks, most children show clear signs that they are on the path to recovery by becoming more active, playing with siblings and more talkative. The hair will regain its shine and the skin become moist and bouncy the way it should be.

UNICEF estimates that 1.3 million children will suffer from acute malnutrition in 2020, many of these as a result of dirty water causing acute watery diarrhoea- just like in Abraham’s case. The battle against malnutrition and the fight for every child’s right to health, does not end at securing enough food. We don’t invest heavily in improving access to clean water, the battle against malnutrition will never be won.

A boy is given ready-to-use therapeutic food
Abraham is given ready-to-use therapeutic food at the UNICEF supported nutrition centre in Wau.


UNICEF is grateful for the donations from Germany, investing in essential water infrastructure and therefor in children’s lives.