Water, Sanitation and Hygiene

Water Quality

© UNICEF/HQ06-2206/Georgina Cranston
A boy uses a syringe to chlorinate a jerrycan of water in Darfur, Sudan.

Water quality is a growing concern throughout the developing world. Drinking water sources are under increasing threat from contamination, with far-reaching consequences for the health of children and for the economic and social development of communities and nations.

Deteriorating water quality threatens the global gains made in improving access to drinking water. From 1990 to 2006 more than 1.6 billion people gained access to improved water sources, but not all of these new sources are necessarily safe. Unsafe handling and storage of water compounds the problem. Water drawn from safe sources may be contaminated by the time it is ultimately consumed in households.

The chemical contamination of water supplies – both naturally occurring and from pollution – is a very serious problem. Arsenic and fluoride alone threaten the health of hundreds of millions of people. But more serious still is the microbiological contamination of drinking water supplies, especially from human faeces. Faecal contamination of drinking water is a major contributor to diarrhoeal disease, which kills millions of children every year. As populations, pollution and environmental degradation increase, so will the chemical and microbiological contamination of water supplies.

© UNICEF/HQ06-1853/Josh Estey
A trained volunteer tests well water in a UNICEF-supported programme in the earthquake-affected areas in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

UNICEF works with its partners to improve the quality of water through its programmes around the world.

Sanitation and hand-washing
The best way to address faecal contamination of drinking water is by preventing it from happening in the first place. Well-constructed latrines that are used regularly prevent the contamination of water supplies. Regular hand-washing after defecation and before handling water (or food) minimizes the risk that water used and stored in the home is contaminated with dirty hands. For these reasons, UNICEF stresses sanitation and hygiene promotions as the first line of defence for protecting drinking water from faecal contamination.

Water quality monitoring
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.

Household water treatment and safe storage
There is an increasing body of evidence demonstrating that household water treatment along with improved water storage and handling significantly improves microbial water quality and has a greater impact on diarrhoea than previously thought. In recognition of this, UNICEF country WASH programmes are increasingly providing support in this area. Activities include the promotion of safe water storage and handling practices and household water treatment. UNICEF is also involved in the development of appropriate technologies for household water treatment (see box on the right for one example of household water treatment supported by UNICEF: ceramic filters)

Arsenic and fluoride
For over a decade, UNICEF has worked closely with governments and other partners in countries where fluoride and arsenic are serious problems, including Bangladesh, India, China, Vietnam and elsewhere. UNICEF programmes support testing and mapping initiatives, developing improved water quality monitoring systems, raising awareness in communities about the issue, helping people find alternative safe water sources, and promoting filters and other technologies that help people treat water themselves (see box on the right for additional information on UNICEF’s work in the area of arsenic and fluoride)

Freshwater management
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.

UNICEF works with governments and other partners to address these issues, helping to strengthen national water protection and conservation systems. Through its field projects, UNICEF supports measures to promote the community management of local water resources and micro-watershed management.



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Household ceramic water filters