Water and sanitation

Posted: 4 April 2008

The provision of clean water and proper sanitation would do more than any other improvement to reduce sickness and death in the developing world. Cholera was eliminated in Europe not by vaccines or antibiotics but by clean water and proper sanitation.

Map of access to drinking water 2004
Map of access to drinking water 2004
Map showing global coverage of access to drinking water 2004. Source: WHO/UNICEF. Click for full-size image
  • More than 2.6 billion people - forty per cent of the world's population - lack basic sanitation facilities, and over 1 billion people still use unsafe drinking water sources.

  • Every year more than 5 million people die of illnesses linked to unsafe drinking water, improper excreta disposal and unclean domestic environments. Diarrhoea - of which over 90 per cent of cases are attributed to unsafe drinking water and poor sanitation and hygiene - causes 2.5 million deaths/year, accounting for around 21 per cent of all-cause mortality for children under five years old in developing countries.

  • The poorest billion people on earth are seven times more likely to die from infectious diseases and illness related to childbirth than the least poor billion. Most of these conditions are linked to bad sanitation.
Safe water, west Delhi, India. Photo: WHO
Safe water, west Delhi, India. Photo: WHO
Safe water, west Delhi, India.© WHO
  • Progress is being made: between 1990 and 2000, over 800 million people gained access to improved water supply and some 750 million people to improved sanitation.

  • As populations grow and water use per person rises, demand for fresh water is soaring. Yet the supply is finite and threatened by pollution. Already, about one-third of the world's population lives in countries suffering from moderate to high water stress - where water consumption is more than 10 per cent of renewable freshwater resources.

  • Urban services face the greatest challenge, with over 1 billion additional people needing access to both water supply and sanitation by 2015. To meet their needs would be equivalent to building the water supply and sanitation infrastructure to serve about three times the population of North America.