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Water, Sanitation and Hygiene

Water quality: Safe water – save lives

The Millennium Development Goal for water calls for halving the population without access to safe drinking water by 2015. There are two key water quality issues that undermine the safety of drinking water and affect the lives of hundreds of millions of children around the world:

  • Faecal contamination of drinking water, which is a leading cause of the 4,000 daily deaths from diarrhoea amongst children under the age of five. 
  • Contamination of drinking water with naturally-occurring arsenic or fluoride, threatening the health of tens of millions of people.

UNICEF addresses these issues in a variety of ways.

Ensuring microbiological water safety

UNICEF’s efforts integrate hygiene promotion, environmental sanitation and water supply as the best proven strategy for breaking the faecal-oral transmission cycle. Promoting community-based strategies, UNICEF aims to build local capacity to sustain the benefits of improved water supply and sanitation facilities. UNICEF assists in laying the foundations for healthy, hygienic families and homes in the future through its School Sanitation and Hygiene Education programmes.

© UNICEF/HQ00-0182/Pirozzi
Two boys washing armchairs stand in polluted flood water in the province of Gaza, Mozambique.
Additional information on arsenic and fluoride

United Nations Synthesis Report on Arsenic in Drinking Water
A comprehensive review of state-of-the-art knowledge on arsenic produced by the World Health Organization, UNICEF and other United Nations partner agencies.
[web page]

UNICEF briefing note on fluoride
A short review of fluoride occurence, effects on health and mitigation strategies.

© UNICEF/HQ98-0837/Noorani
A boy pumps water from a tube-well, the spout of which is painted green to indicate that its water is arsenic free and safe to be used for any purpose, in the town of Sonargaon, Naraynganj District, Bangladesh.

The effects of fluoride are usually only visible after prolonged exposure to contaminated water. Its effects are debilitating, ultimately leaving people severely crippled. Ultimately fluorosis can lead to death. Long-term exposure to low concentrations of arsenic in drinking-water causes painful skin lesions and can result in cancers of the skin, lungs, bladder and kidney.

Strategies for dealing with groundwater contaminated with either fluoride or arsenic are currently limited or unaffordable for many of the people affected. Substituting water sources using, for example, uncontaminated wells or rainwater harvesting, is often the best solution where such alternatives are available. In areas without alternative sources, more affordable household treatment methods are being developed and promoted.

For over a decade, UNICEF has worked closely with governments and other partners in countries where fluoride and arsenic are serious problems, including in India and Bangladesh. UNICEF's focus on both issues has been on strengthening the systems for monitoring water quality, facilitating water treatment by households and advocating for alternative water supplies when necessary.

Education and information - for households and communities - is a key component of the strategy. People have a right to know about the state of their domestic water supplies. In various countries UNICEF also supports household treatment demonstration projects, the development of field test kits and more detailed hydrogeological mapping and investigation.

Other water quality issues

In the case of arsenic and fluoride, most of the health problems are caused by naturally occurring forms of the contaminants. An increasing number of water quality problems, however, originate from human-made pollution and general environmental degradation.

The release of toxic agricultural and industrial wastes into the environment is a distressingly commonplace practice, especially in poorer countries and regions without the resources necessary to enforce anti-pollution legislation.

Water supplies must be safe - both from biological and chemical contamination. Salt water intrusion into fresh water aquifers is affecting more people worldwide, as are other effects of poor water resource management, population pressures and environmental degradation. 

In some areas, iron and corrosive groundwater are serious problems. By making biologically-safe water sources unattractive (such as through the bad taste caused by iron), iron forces people to return to older, unsafe sources. Highly-corrosive groundwater (found in West Africa and elsewhere) necessitates the frequent replacement of pump components, which increases the cost of water supply programmes and can ultimately mean that fewer people have access to safe water.

Monitoring water safety

As water quality problems become more serious and widespread, water quality monitoring becomes a more important component of national efforts in this sector. These efforts can be complemented by community-level surveillance systems, where people are empowered with the knowledge and tools necessary to monitor the quality of their own water sources. UNICEF and its partners are playing an increasingly active role in supporting governments and communities in this important area.



Water quality information from the United Nations

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