How does safe water impact global health?

Online Q&A
25 June 2008

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 habitats - such as standing water - for breeding, 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.

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