March 2012

Key facts

  • Safe water supplies, hygienic sanitation and good water management are fundamental to global health.
  • Almost one tenth of the global disease burden could be prevented by:
    • increasing access to safe drinking water;
    • improving sanitation and hygiene; and
    • improving water management to reduce risks of water-borne infectious diseases, and accidental drowning during recreation.
  • Annually, safer water could prevent:
    • 1.4 million child deaths from diarrhoea;
    • 500 000 deaths from malaria;
    • 860 000 child deaths from malnutrition; and
    • 280 000 deaths from drowning.
  • In addition, 5 million people can be protected from being seriously incapacitated from lymphatic filariasis and another 5 million from trachoma.

Recommended measures

  • Efforts to improve water, sanitation and hygiene interact with each other to boost overall health.
  • Access to sanitation, such as simple latrines in communities, prevents drinking water contamination from human waste and reduces infections.
  • High-tech public health measures are not necessarily the best.
  • Frequent hand-washing with soap and safe storage of drinking water are high-impact practices.
  • Environmental management effectively lowers the rates of malaria and other diseases spread by insects and prevents death.
  • These measures include eliminating mosquito-breeding habitats – such as standing water – and screening doors and windows for protection from mosquitoes.

Economic benefits

  • Investment to improve drinking water, sanitation, hygiene and water resource management systems makes strong economic sense.
  • Every dollar invested leads to up to eight dollars in benefits.
  • US$ 84 billion a year could be regained from the yearly investment of US$ 11.3 billion needed to meet the water and sanitation targets under the Millennium Development Goals.
  • In addition to the value of saved human lives, other benefits include higher economic productivity, more education, and health-care savings.

Water-related diseases during emergencies

  • The three top priorities concerning drinking water and sanitation during an emergency situation are:
    • ensuring the provision of enough safe water for drinking and for personal hygiene to the people affected by the crisis;
    • ensuring that all people affected by the crisis have access to hygienic sanitation facilities;
    • promoting good hygiene behaviour.
  • Following damage to existing sanitation systems or increased pressure due to large numbers of displaced or homeless people, effective and well-coordinated action by all those involved in the emergency response is critical.
  • The first priority is to provide a sufficient quantity of water, even if its safety cannot be guaranteed, and to protect water sources from contamination.
  • A minimum of 15 litres per person per day should be provided as soon as possible.
  • During emergencies, people may use untreated water for laundry or bathing.
  • Water-quality improvements should be made over succeeding days or weeks as a matter of urgency.
  • Inadequate disposal of human excreta is a major health risk in emergency situations.
  • It is essential to organize sanitation facilities immediately, such as designated defecation fields or collective trench latrines.
  • Emergency facilities need to be progressively improved or replaced with simple pit latrines, ventilated improved pit latrines, or poor-flush latrines as the situation develops.
  • All types of latrines need to be properly cleaned, disinfected and maintained.
  • The provision of drinking water and sanitation services in health facilities is a top priority.
  • Safe drinking water, basic sanitation facilities and safe disposal of infectious wastes will prevent the spread of disease and improve health conditions.
  • In all cases, good hygiene practices are key to preventing disease transmission.
  • Water should be provided in sufficient quantities to enable proper hygiene.
  • Hands should be washed immediately after defecation, after handling babies' faeces, before preparing food and before eating.