Clean water and sanitation: the keys to breaking free from poverty

Access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation are vital for health, especially among children.

Poor sanitation, water and hygiene have many serious consequences:

  • Children die from preventable illnesses like diarrhea;
  • Children – and particularly girls – are denied their right to education because their schools lack private and decent sanitation facilities;
  • Women are forced to spend large parts of their day fetching water;
  • Poor farmers and wage earners are less productive due to illness;
  • Health systems are overwhelmed and national economies suffer.

It's impossible to break the vicious cycle of poverty – and enable sustainable development – without first addressing these issues.

The global water and sanitation situation

The good news is that, according to the World Health Organisation, since 1990, around 2 billion people have gained access to an improved, sustainable source of water.

However, around 800 million people still live without safe drinking water.

What’s more, almost two-fifths of the world’s people lack access to sanitation. This means they live in unclean environments where there isn’t a proper waste disposal system in place – and disease is able to spread easily.

LEFT: In poor African communities the majority of illnesses are caused by waterborne diseases; CENTRE: Safe disposal of human waste is vital in stopping the spread of disease; RIGHT: Children in Cambodia enjoy the benefits of a clean water well and pump installed by World Vision in their community.

What are the benefits of safe water supply and sanitation?

It is hard to overstate the benefits. When asked what would improve their lives the most, the majority of people in developing countries prioritise access to clean water.

And for good reason. We know that clean water, along with decent sanitation and hygiene, are very effective in reducing poverty. It can help save lives, drive economic growth, keep kids in school and increase opportunities for women and girls.

In terms of investment, it’s also value for money. The World Health Organization estimates that meeting the Sustainable Development Goal for water and sanitation would bring substantial economic benefit: each $1 invested would create an economic return of between $3 and $34, depending on the region.

And it would improve life for people of all ages.

  • From the age of 0 to 4 years, child deaths may be reduced.
  • From the age of 5 to 14 years, many more children, especially girls, could go to school if they had adequate drinking water and sanitation facilities. Children would be more likely to escape poverty.
  • From the age of 15 to 59 years, workers would have increased productivity thanks to improved health and better facilities.
  • People older than 60 could expect to live longer.

What is World Vision doing about these issues?

World Vision operates the largest privately funded rural water, sanitation and hygiene program in the world. We reach one new person with clean water every 10 seconds. Since 2010, 12.5 million people have received access to clean water.  And by 2020, we aim to bring clean water and sanitation to almost 20 million people in 36 countries. 

By improving access to safe water, and providing improved sanitation and hygiene education in targeted communities, as well as promoting multiple-use water systems, World Vision expects to see significant changes over a five-year period, including:

  • Significant reduction in child deaths and sick days;
  • Increase in school attendance, as safe water, latrines, and hand-washing stations become more accessible to children at school;
  • Increased incomes through water-related, income-generating activities.

Case study: Bulawayo

Long-term economic issues in Zimbabwe meant that by 2008, much of its water and sanitation infrastructure had fallen into disrepair. With local authorities unable to mend the damage, water-borne disease outbreaks were common.

Through a DFAT-funded project in Bulawayo, World Vision oversaw significant improvements to the city's water and sanitation systems. It also addressed long-term issues, working with local councils to ensure they would be in a better financial situation to maintain these improvements.

In all, World Vision repaired nine sewerage pumping stations and cleaned over 250km of sewerage infrastructure. The project managed to assist over 450,000 people and led to a 40 percent reduction in diarrhoeal diseases in all age groups.

In Zambia, John and Phelma collect dirty water.