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Water, Sanitation and Hygiene

How WASH relates to health, education and development

© UNICEF/HQ07-0314/Christine Nesbitt
A girl cleans a latrine in a UNICEF-supported school in south-western Nigeria.

WASH and health
Poor sanitation, unsafe water and unhygienic practices cause millions of children in the developing world to suffer needlessly from disease. Water- and sanitation-related disease, despite being preventable, remains one of the most significant child health problems worldwide.

Diarrhoea is the most serious of these diseases, alone killing 1,600 children each day. More than half  of diarrhoeal disease deaths are attributed to unsafe drinking water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene. Children in developing countries typically have four to five bouts of diarrhoea a year. Even when they don’t kill, these diarrhoea episodes can physically and mentally stunt children, affecting them for the rest of their lives. By weakening children, diarrhoea increases mortality rates from other opportunistic diseases, including ARI (acute respiratory infections). ARI and diarrhoea together account for two-thirds of all child deaths worldwide.

“Sanitation is the single most important medical advance since 1840” — British Medical Journal reader survey

Millions of other children are made sick, weakened or are disabled by other water- and sanitation-related diseases and infections including cholera, malaria, trachoma, schistosomiasis, worm infestations and guinea worm disease. And in a growing number of countries, natural or man-made pollution of water sources with dangerous contaminants threatens millions of people.

WASH and education
A high percentage of children suffer from intestinal infections caused by parasites as a result of poor hygiene and inadequate sanitation. Parasites consume nutrients, aggravate malnutrition, retard children's physical development and result in poor school attendance and performance. Household chores, such as fetching water, keep many girls out of school. Also, the lack of separate and decent sanitation and washing facilities in schools discourages girls from attending school full time and forces some to drop out. The majority of the 121 million school-age children not in school are girls.

WASH and development
Poor water and sanitation exact a heavy economic cost in terms of health spending, loss of productivity and labour diversion. If everyone in the world had access to basic water and sanitation services, the reduction in diarrhoeal disease alone would save the health sector $11.6 billion in treatment costs and people would gain over 5.6 billion productive days per year.  When the potential economic gains of providing basic, low-cost water and sanitation facilities are added together, the developing world could save as much as $263 billion a year (see box).
Promoting improved hygiene practices and increasing access to water and sanitation facilities helps to reduce opportunistic infections among people living with HIV/AIDS. Better access to facilities also reduces the burden on households caring for AIDS-affected family members. Less time spent on fetching water allows caregivers – who are usually women and girls – more time and energy for coping with the disease or for working outside the home. Appropriate sanitation also helps to ensure that AIDS sufferers, many of whom experience severe bouts of diarrhoea, have access to clean and private facilities.



Additional Information

Common water and sanitation-related diseases

Environmental hazards and young children

Water, sanitation and education

Cost-benefit analysis of water supply and sanitation interventions (WHO)

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