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WaterAid's history stretches back to 1981, when on 21 July we were officially established as a charitable trust.

In the last 30 years, we have gone from strength to strength to become one of the most respected organisations dealing solely with water, sanitation and hygiene issues.

Your money and support has also helped us to influence policy and practice to ensure that the vital role of water, hygiene and sanitation in reducing poverty is recognised globally.

A girl and a boy wash their hands in front of a toilet block


1980s

  • 1981 sees the Thirsty Third World Conference in the UK, which was organised by the Government's National Water Council to see how the UK water industry should respond to the UN 1981-1991 Decade of Drinking Water and Sanitation. £25,000 is raised through water industry employees that year and David Collett, former director of Voluntary Service Overseas, is appointed WaterAid's first director. 

  • Projects in Zambia and Sri Lanka become the first of many thousands to receive much needed support from WaterAid. 

  • Throughout the 1980s regional WaterAid fundraising committees, based in many of the UK water industry's organisations, are created, and more and more organised fundraising events take place. 

A black and white photo from one of WaterAid's first projects.

A black and white photo of WaterAid's founders from the UK water industry.


1990s

  • In 1991 HRH Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, becomes our first president and is taken to see WaterAid projects in Nepal. He continues to offer his support in this role to this day. 

  • In 1993 we begin work on our 1,000th project. We also agree to fund the Hitosa Gravity Scheme in Ethiopia. The Hitosha scheme is the largest single water supply scheme implemented in Ethiopia at this time, reaching 50,000 people. 

  • By 1994 the WaterAid name is becoming more recognised in the UK, after the BBC programme Blue Peter runs an appeal that raises over £1.65 million for our work. In the same year, WaterAid becomes one of Glastonbury Festival's main charities, along with Oxfam and Greenpeace. We also get serious about our policy work with our first advocacy report: Mega-Slums: the coming sanitary crisis.

A group of children in Madagascar.

School children in a hygiene education class.

A group of women fetching water with containers.

  • By the end of the 1990s, projects are being funded in Nigeria, Mozambique, Zambia, Madagascar and Malawi. Country Strategies are developed and approved for all overseas work, a hygiene education policy is in place to ensure people gain the maximum health benefits from their water and sanitation projects, and urban water projects are initiated. 

  • In the UK, the organisational base keeps growing, with regional offices opening. In 1999 Jon Lane retires as director, later to receive an OBE for his work. Jon was succeeded by Ravi Narayanan from ActionAid.

  • Other highlights this decade include:
    - Being awarded the Stockholm Water Prize including a grant of US$150,000
    - Gaining entry into the Guinness Book of records with the Munro Challenge 
    - Being chosen for The Guardian newspaper's Christmas charity appeal. 

2000s

  • The turn of the millennium sees WaterAid begin its work in Mali and Burkina Faso, bringing the total number of beneficiaries to over six million of the poorest people in the world. 

  • In 2002 water is declared a human right. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set at the World Summit of Sustainable Development in 2000 aim to halve the proportion of people without access to clean water by 2015. Thanks to lobbying from WaterAid and other groups, sanitation is added to the list of MDGs. 

  • Not only is the global political arena waking up to the importance of WaterAid's work, but so were the general public. Also in 2002, over £1.45 million is raised through the BBCs Blue Peter WaterWorks appeal in aid of projects in Tanzania and Uganda and over £450,000 is raised through The Guardian and Observer Christmas appeal. 

  • As well as charitable donations from public appeals, WaterAid has benefited increasingly from larger sponsorship and grants from both the public and private sectors. The UK Department for Overseas Development (DFID) awards WaterAid a £15.5 million grant in 2003 to expand its programme reaching vulnerable communities in Bangladesh.
Campaigners in front of the White House in Washington, D.C.

  • By 2003 we have helped over 7.5 million people gain access to clean water and won UK charity of the year at the Charity Times Awards. Work is expanding in all 15 country programmes to strengthen projects and ensure that the poorest communities are being reached. 
Two children washing their hands at a tap. 
  • 2004 sees new member countries America and Australia join the WaterAid family and additional projects being funded in Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste.

A WaterAid employee speaking at an event.
  • Still in 2004, our Education drain report is published, highlighting the negative effects that poor water and lack of sanitation facilities have on the lives and education of children. The UK Independent newspaper's Christmas appeal helps raise over £300,000. 

  • 2005 sees the launch of the United Nations Decade for Action on Water, which puts water and sanitation at the forefront of achieving the MDGs. In March the UK government announces a doubling of aid for water and sanitation projects in Africa following the release of our Getting to boiling point report.

  • Further changes are afoot in 2006. Ravi Narayanan retires and is succeeded by Barbara Frost, formerly Chief Executive of Action on Disability and Development (ADD). Also this year, our new logo is introduced.

  • 2008 is the UN International Year of Sanitation. Our UK Director of Policy Margaret Batty addresses the UN's commission for sustainable development, highlighting the need to reverse the neglect of sanitation. We also campaign around the G8 summit in Japan. Sanitation and water are included on the agenda and in the final declaration. Result!

  • 2009 brings the opening of a new fundraising office in Sweden. We also launch our Global Strategy and set ourselves the ambitious target of reaching 25 million more people across 30 countries by 2015!

2010s

  • In 2010 our UK Chief Executive Barbara Frost addresses the United Nations, highlighting the crisis and calling for action. We organise the World's Longest Toilet Queue, to place pressure on global politicians attending the High Level Meeting for Water and Sanitation. Access to clean water and sanitation is declared a human right.

  • Also in 2010 WaterAid international (WAi) is officially formed, as part of our development into a truly global organisation and an integral part of achieving our ambitious global strategy.

  • In 2012, The Big Dig appeal receives incredible support and raises more than £2m for our work in rural Malawi, bringing clean water and safe sanitation to more than 134,000 people. Incredible stuff!
  • Thanks to the amazing and continued commitment of our supporters, by 2013 – our 32nd birthday – we had reached 19.2 million people with safe water and 15.1 million people with sanitation.

The World's longest toilet queue stunt in London, 2010.

Water spurts from the ground from a drill hole, Malawi.