One in five newborn deaths could be prevented with safe water, sanitation and clean hands: new WaterAid report

17 Mar 2015

Half a million babies die each year in their first month of life because they have been born into unhygienic conditions, a new briefing paper from the international development organisation WaterAid reveals today.

The briefing, “Healthy Start: the first month of life”, reveals the devastating impact of a lack of safe water and sanitation on newborns in developing countries.

It accompanies a new World Health Organization and UNICEF report which reveals that 38% of hospitals and clinics in 54 low- and middle-income countries do not have access to any water source. And of the healthcare facilities that have some water access, only half of those have reliable or safe supplies.

The World Health Organization/UNICEF report “Water, sanitation and hygiene in health care facilities: status in low and middle income countries and way forward”  shows that access to water in healthcare facilities is often absent - with as few as 20% of health care facilities in Mali having a water source at or near  the facility..

The first multi-country assessment of its kind, it shows that in the 54 developing countries studied, 38% of healthcare facilities do not have any water and 19% do not have any toilet facilities. Over a third (35%) of hospitals and clinics did not have anywhere for staff or patients to wash their hands with soap.                     

The figures are all the more shocking as even if hospitals and clinics are defined as having access to water, the water supply may be up to half a kilometre away from the facility, rather than piped into the premises. Additionally there is limited data as to whether toilets in healthcare facilities are in working order and can be used by both staff and patients.

WaterAid’s “Healthy Start” briefing launches a new four-year child health campaign by WaterAid. For one in five babies who die in their first month in the developing world, just being washed in clean water, and cared for in a clean and safe environment by people who had washed their hands with soap, could have prevented their untimely deaths.

The new paper highlights the risks presented by healthcare facilities that do not offer a hygienic birth environment, and sets out what is needed to support health agencies, ministries and donor governments to ensure that every healthcare facility has clean running water, safe toilets and sinks with soap available to staff and patients.

Barbara Frost, WaterAid’s Chief Executive said:

“The links between dirty hands, dirty water and infant mortality have been known about for over 150 years so this is not a solution waiting for an answer, but an injustice waiting for action.

“Being born into unhygienic conditions condemns too many babies in the developing world to a tragically early and avoidable death and their parents to needless heartbreak.

“The ability to keep a hospital or clinic clean is such a fundamental basic requirement of health care that you have to question whether a facility without clean running water or basic sanitation can adequately serve its patients.

“We need everyone involved in leading and shaping health services to work together to ensure that the most vulnerable members of society do not have their life expectancy reduced to mere weeks because facilities are unable to meet the most basic standards of clean and safe care.”

On 17-18 March, the World Health Organization and UNICEF, with support from WaterAid will sponsor a global summit in Geneva to develop an action plan to address these deadly missing elements in healthcare facilities.

Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director for Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, said:

“Provision of Water and Sanitation (WASH) in health care facilities is an urgent priority and WHO is committed to work with partners, including WaterAid, to improve this situation. Enhancing  WASH services in health care facilities involves much more than simply digging wells or installing latrines. It necessitates comprehensive planning and national standards, allocation of sufficient human and financial resources, implementing facility-based assessment and management tools and conducting monitoring. Through coordinated, global action, with leadership from the health sector, ensuring that all health care facilities have WASH services is an aim that can be realized."

“Nearly 40% of health care facilities do not have any source of water, suggesting that patients seeking treatment fall ill, or potentially die, for the lack of the most basic elements of a safe and clean environment. Pregnant mothers, rely on a birthing environment that, at a minimum, does not place them or their baby at risk, saying nothing of the need for drinking-water or having to leave the facility to search for a toilet. The same conditions contribute to major disease outbreaks, such as recurrent cholera in Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Malawi, Tanzania and South Sudan.”

The United Nations is currently deciding on the Sustainable Development Goals, which will be successors to the Millennium Development Goals.  WaterAid is calling for a dedicated goal to deliver water and sanitation to everyone, everywhere by 2030, including in all healthcare facilities.

WaterAid is part of action/2015, a global movement of 1,200 organisations in 125 countries working to ensure a better future for people and our planet in this transformative year for tackling poverty, inequality and climate change.

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For more information or to arrange interviews please contact Fiona Callister, media relations lead, on [email protected] or +44 (0) 207 793 5022 or 07825 322748 or Lucy Prioli, media officer on [email protected] or +44 (0) 20 7793 5081 Or call our after-hours press line on +44 (0) 7887 521 552.


Notes to Editors

  • Water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) for all is vital to end preventable child deaths and improve the health of children around the world. We need globally recognised goals to deliver change and are asking the UN to include the following in the Sustainable Development Goals:
    • set a dedicated goal on water and sanitation, and ambitious targets towards universal WASH by 2030.
    •  explicitly highlight the links between WASH and health, as well as other sustainable development objectives.
    •  ensure that targets on WASH are used to help monitor progress towards all aspects of health and universal health coverage.
    • Commit to universal targets for WASH that strive to leave no one behind and focus on progressively eliminating inequalities. 
  • WaterAid’s vision is of a world where everyone has access to safe water and sanitation.  The international organisation works in 26 countries across Africa, Asia, Central America and the Pacific Region to transform lives by improving access to safe water, hygiene and sanitation in some of the world’s poorest communities.  Since 1981, WaterAid has reached 19.2 million people with safe water and, since 2004, 15.1 million people with sanitation.  For more information, visit, follow @WaterAidUK on Twitter or visit us on Facebook at
  • Around 1,400 children die every day from diseases caused by dirty water, poor sanitation and poor hygiene practices.
  • 748 million people, or one in 10, are without safe water globally.
  • 2.5 billion people are without adequate sanitation, or 39% of the world's population.