Safer Water, Better Health: Improving Access to Clean Water and Sanitation to Combat Disease

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By Janeen Madan

Did you know that a ten minute shower uses up 150 liters of water? This is five times as much as a person living in a slum uses for drinking, washing, and cooking every day. And the water is often contaminated with feces, dirt, and disease-causing bacteria.

One-tenth of the global disease burden could be prevented by improving access to clean water, adequate sanitation services and better hygiene. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

This is not just a problem of scarcity–it’s also a problem of access. Today, one in eight people lack access to clean water, and over 2.5 billion lack access to basic sanitation services.

A report titled, “Safer water, better health,” published by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2008, finds that almost one-tenth of the global disease burden could be prevented by improving water supply, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). The global disease burden is a comparative description of the causes of diseases and their risk factors in countries around the world.

This is the first-ever report to provide country-by-country data on how much disease can be prevented by improving access to safe water and better sanitation services. The WHO report helps serve as an important resource for local, national and global efforts aimed at reducing the prevalence of disease caused by WASH-related factors.

The report estimates the number of preventable deaths and impairments per year, caused by diseases such as diarrhea, intestinal infections (including hookworm), trachoma (a bacterial eye infection) and malnutrition.

Trachoma, for example, is a disease transmitted as a result of inadequate hygiene, which affects millions of people living in rural areas around the world. If untreated, it can cause visual impairments, and it is estimated that each year, 5 million cases of blindness could be prevented by promoting facial cleanliness, access to safe water and adequate sanitation.

In addition, each year, 88 percent of diarrhea cases are attributable to WASH, and account for an estimated 1.4 million child deaths. And, 50 percent of malnutrition cases are associated with chronic diarrhea and intestinal infections caused by WASH-related factors. Malnourished children are more vulnerable to infectious disease and are also less likely to fully recover. This indirect effect of malnutrition is responsible for 70,000 children deaths per year.

In order to find effective approaches to reduce the number of deaths caused by WASH-related factors, we need to understand how these factors contribute to disease.

Improving sanitation facilities can help reduce the number of diarrhea-related deaths in young children by more than one-third. And, if we teach children the simple lesson of hand washing, deaths can be reduced by two-thirds.

In several countries in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, WASH-related illnesses are a major cause of low school attendance and lost time at work. Reducing the prevalence of disease can also help foster social and economic wellbeing.

But often, high-tech approaches are not required; the simplest solutions can have the most significant impact.

To learn more about improving access to clean water and sanitation, see: Innovation of the Week: Providing an Agricultural Answer to Nature’s Call, Innovation of the Week: Using Dirt to Make Water Clean, Sanitation too often overlooked in developing nations, UN Declaration: Access to Clean Water and Sanitation is a Human Right, The Spread of Information Thwarts the Spread of Disease: World Water Week in Washington DC, Innovation of the Week: Reducing Wastewater Contamination Starts with a Conversation, For Many Women, Improved Access to Water is About More than Having Something to Drink and Access to Water Improves Quality of Life for Women and Children.

Janeen Madan is a research intern with Nourishing the Planet.

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