World Water Day: Access to clean water is more important than ever

Photo: Lys Arango for Action Against Hunger, Philippines

As we are faced with the coronavirus pandemic, we are constantly reminded about the importance of handwashing. But how can families wash their hands when clean water is kilometers away? Around the world, 40% of people lack access to basic handwashing facilities at home, and 780 million people do not have access to a quality water source.

World Water Day, marked each year on March 22, is an opportunity to think about the vital importance of water and those who lack it – and to take action. Without a reliable source of water, basic sanitation and hygiene are virtually impossible, putting people at greater risk of poor health and diseases like coronavirus, diarrhea, and cholera. For communities already battling hunger, the effects can be devastating.

Lack of access to water also puts women and girls at greater risk: Most of the time, when water is not available at home, women and girls are responsible for collecting it. Often, this means they make long and sometimes dangerous trips to the nearest water point.

Here are some key facts about water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH):

  • 1 in 3 people worldwide lack safe drinking water;
  • 2 billion people do not have access to safely managed sanitation services;
  • poor WASH conditions are a leading cause of childhood stunting, or chronic malnutrition;
  • unsafe drinking water, inadequate availability of water for hygiene, and lack of access to sanitation together contribute to about 88% of deaths from diarrheal diseases.

Healthier and more resilient communities

Photo: Jean-Francois Perigois for Action Against Hunger, Cambodia

Ensuring access to clean water, safe sanitation, and good hygiene goes hand-in-hand with efforts to improve health and nutrition. When clean water is guaranteed, communities are healthier and more resilient.

Without clean water, illnesses like diarrhea, intestinal parasites, and chronic inflammation of the intestines are common and can prevent children from absorbing key nutrients and make them more susceptible to other health issues. For all these reasons, water and sanitation have been at the centre of our approach to prevent and treat malnutrition.

Here are three main ways in which we contribute to better water, sanitation, and hygiene:

  • To prevent disease outbreaks, our teams distribute hygiene kits and build latrines and handwashing stations in communities, schools, and health centres. We build water filters and teach healthy practices like handwashing, cooking with clean utensils, and drawing water from protected sources – even in the hardest-to-reach places.
  • During natural and manmade emergencies, we truck water into communities and install storage tanks and reservoirs. Where water is scarce or unsafe, we drill new wells and decontaminate unsafe ones, install hand-pumps, protect natural springs, tap aquifers, rehabilitate damaged infrastructure, and pipe water into hard-to-reach villages and health centers. We also teach innovative solutions, such as hydroponics, to help farmers grow crops with limited water.
  • We are committed to our partnerships with communities; by working closely with community members, we can create sustainable change. We train water committees, made up of elected community members, to independently manage water and sanitation infrastructure. We also organize local health teams to model good sanitation and hygiene practices for their communities long after we leave.

Last year, our WASH programs reached 8.9 million people.

Improving access to water: our approach

Coronavirus is growing rapidly in developing countries, including in sub-Saharan Africa. It has reached countries where many people already face life-threatening malnutrition. We know that children who are undernourished are more susceptible to disease; for example, the risk of child mortality increases by 15 times if they develop pneumonia, another respiratory disease.

This pandemic is a stark reminder of the challenges that poor families face around the world, especially in the growing number of areas where access to water is limited. Now more than ever, our ongoing health, nutrition, sanitation and hygiene programs serve as a first line of defense in many communities.

Our research teams are identifying important ways to encourage handwashing and healthy habits; we are looking at what factors motivate people to wash their hands, especially where water is limited. For example, in Ethiopia, one of our studies is investigating whether adding mirrors or nicer soap at handwashing stations encourages people to wash more frequently. In some countries, like South Sudan, if access to clean water is impossible, we have observed that families rub ash on their hands, which is better than not washing hands at all. All these lessons will be vital as we look for ways to contain the spread of coronavirus in resource-poor settings.

Access to WASH in conflict areas

With a sharp rise in violent conflict since 2010, nearly two billion people live in fragile and conflict-affected areas, where people are displaced and water-related infrastructure is often destroyed or neglected. This situation has resulted in nearly 80 million people lacking clean water, hygiene, and sanitation services.

Without access to these vital services, the risk of waterborne diseases increases, and people’s health and nutrition suffer. According to a recent UNICEF report, “in protracted conflict children younger than 15 are, on average, nearly three times more likely to die from diarrhoeal disease linked to unsafe water and sanitation than violence directly linked to conflict and war.”

Increasingly, around the world, parties to conflict are targeting water points, using them as a weapon against communities. Since conflict began in Yemen in 2015, water infrastructure has been destroyed and millions of Yemeni citizens have seen their water supply disrupted, often with dramatic health consequences. Yemen has faced the worst cholera epidemic in history, with 1.7 million cases and nearly 3,500 deaths since 2016.

Lack of WASH services fuels malnutrition as waterborne diseases have hampered people’s ability to absorb nutrients, on top of severe food insecurity. Today in Yemen, seven million people are malnourished across the country, including two million children, or one in five.

In areas plagued by prolonged conflict – from Yemen to Somalia to Syria and elsewhere – we are on the ground, working to ensure people have access to basic WASH services, including by distributing hygiene and dignity kits to internally displaced persons and by restoring water access points and installing water pumps, latrines, and water tanks.

Support us in our efforts to ensure access to clean water, safe sanitation, and good hygiene to communities in need.