Clean and safe drinking-water, sanitation, and hygiene are crucial to human health and wellbeing.

WaterAid and Health

When clean water, decent toilets, and good hygiene are not a normal part of daily life, the impacts to individual health and wellbeing are devastating. Never has this been clearer than during the COVID-19 pandemic. Handwashing is vital to help prevent the spread of disease like COVID-19, but for people across the world without access to soap and water, following this public health advice is impossible. And, with almost half of healthcare facilities globally lacking hand hygiene facilities at points of care, millions of health workers and patients are left on the frontline without defense. To guard against this and future pandemics, and provide quality care, every healthcare facility must have clean water, decent toilets, and good hygiene facilities.

Without access to these essential services, people are at high risk of diseases such as cholera and numerous Neglected Tropical Disease's (NTDs) such as blinding trachoma. Diseases transmitted through water, hands, soil, and food contaminated by human feces spread because water sources are not protected.

The effects go beyond the illnesses themselves. It is estimated that half of undernutrition is associated with inadequate water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), because diarrheal diseases and parasites prevent people from absorbing nutrients from food. Undernutrition in the first two years of life causes stunting, which permanently damages children’s long-term physical and mental development. Frequent illnesses and undernutrition keep children from attending school and adults from going to work, limiting students’ potential and reducing adults’ income.

All of this contributes to a vicious cycle of poverty and impacts on a country’s economic growth and development. And without clean water and soap in healthcare facilities, staff and patients cannot deliver quality, safe healthcare, putting the lives of patients – especially vulnerable mothers and babies – in danger.

Our approach

We aim to have an integrated approach: improved health and improved water, toilets, and hygiene have to go hand in hand. 

While we don’t work directly in the health sector, for example by providing funds to healthcare facilities or healthcare professionals, we are working increasingly closely with health professionals and hygiene educators, because the links between health and hygiene are so strong.

We focus on health in our research, programs, policy, and advocacy, boosting our efforts to improve access to clean water, toilets, and hygiene as a key health intervention. And we foster integration between sectors and ministries, helping those working in water, sanitation, hygiene, health, education, nutrition, and more, to work together to make a bigger difference.

Through our innovative programs and research, we influence changes from the national level to individual behaviours, to ensure improvements last. For example, in Tanzania, together with the SHARE consortium and the Soapbox Collaborative, we have partnered with the Ministry of Health to improve water and sanitation provision in maternity units, as part of Government efforts on maternal and newborn health. In Malawi, we are working with the Government and non-governmental partners to promote hygiene and sanitation to communities to eliminate blinding trachoma.

Only by making clean water, decent toilets, and good hygiene normal for everyone, everywhere, can we prevent disease, tackle undernutrition, and deliver quality health services that keep people healthy and unlock their full potential.

Maternal Health

Every two seconds, a woman gives birth in a healthcare facility without clean water, decent toilets, or good hygiene.

That’s over 16 million women a year that are forced to risk the transmission of deadly infections to both themselves and their babies just to receive medical care during birth.

Women face unique needs around the time of pregnancy and childbirth. A clean, safe, and private environment to give birth is essential to reduce the risk of infections, including maternal and newborn sepsis, and ensuring the delivery of quality, dignified care.

An estimated 30,000 women and 400,000 babies worldwide die every year from infections such as puerperal sepsis, often caused by lack of water, sanitation, and poor hand-washing practices. Furthermore, the lack of water access in healthcare facilities can contribute to the increased use, misuse, and overuse of antibiotics, accelerating antimicrobial resistance.

With a reliable supply of water, staff can keep wards and equipment clean and safe. With working taps, nurses can wash their hands when they need to, and encourage their patients to do the same. And with decent toilets and washing facilities, women can give birth in safety and dignity.

WASH plays a foundational role in improving maternal health

With clean water in healthcare facilities, mothers like Susan can give birth safely and with dignity – and babies can get the best possible start in life.

Image: WaterAid/James Kiyimba

Prior to the rehabilitation of the water and sanitation infrastructure at the local healthcare facility in Geita District, Tanzania, expectant mothers like Susan had to bring their own water for use during delivery.

"The first time I gave birth here was in 2017. There was no water here at that time, so we had to bring water with us from home."

Now, thanks to the Tanzania: Deliver Life project, a partnership among four Canadian organizations funded by the Government of Canada, Susan's healthcare facility and many others like it have running water, flushing toilets, and handwashing stations in the maternity wards and operating rooms.

Because of Tanzania: Deliver Life, twelve healthcare facilities in Tanzania are now better able to serve their communities, leading to better health outcomes. The facilities are supported by sustainable equipment like solar-powered boreholes, rainwater harvesting, and ultraviolet disinfection systems that provide a clean, accessible, and consistent water supply.

“This time when I gave birth, I didn’t have to bring water with me. I have seen good changes at this dispensary, there is water, the place is clean and there is electricity too. I am happy to come here and give birth.”