The benefits of having access to an improved drinking water source can only be fully realized when there is also access to improved sanitation and adherence to good hygiene practices. Beyond the immediate, obvious advantages of people being hydrated and healthier, access to water, sanitation and hygiene – known collectively as WASH – has profound wider socio-economic impacts, particularly for women and girls. The fact that WASH is the subject of dedicated targets within the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 6) is testament to its fundamental role in public health and therefore in the future of sustainable development. Indeed, access to safe water and sanitation are human rights, as recognized in 2010 by the United Nations General Assembly. For universal fulfilment of these rights to become reality, we will need the right systems: well-resourced, capable institutions delivering services and changing behaviour in resilient and appropriate ways.

Water

A person without access to improved drinking water – for example from a protected borehole well or municipal piped supply for instance – is forced to rely on sources such as surface water, unprotected and possibly contaminated wells, or vendors selling water of unverifiable provenance and quality. For many communities, water sources are usually far from their homes, and it typically falls to women and girls to spend much of their time and energy fetching water, a task which often exposes them to attack from men and even wild animals.

WASH and health

The impact of universal access to WASH on global health would be profound. There is the potential to save the lives of the 829,000 people who currently die every year from diseases directly caused by unsafe water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene practices, and we could also drastically reduce child malnourishment, and help alleviate physical and mental under-development. Today, 50% of child malnutrition is associated with unsafe water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene.

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