Unclean water and a lack of basic sanitation are undermining efforts to end extreme poverty and disease in the world’s poorest countries. Sub-Saharan Africa faces some of the biggest challenges: in 2010, 334 million people in the region lacked access to clean water and nearly 600 million lacked access to proper sanitation facilities. People living in rural areas are the worst affected, with only 23% of the rural population of sub-Saharan Africa having access to proper sanitation and 41% having access to clean water in 2010.
Together, unclean water and poor sanitation are a leading cause of child mortality. An estimated 2,240 children die every day from diarrhoea, spread through poor sanitation and hygiene. Women are more than twice as likely as men to be responsible for water collection. On average, women and girls in developing countries walk six kilometres each day to collect water – time which could be spent in school or at work. Additionally, more than half of girls who drop out of primary school in sub-Saharan Africa do so because of a lack of separate toilets and easy access to safe water.
A lack of reliable, clean water access also has deep economic impacts. In total, the World Health Organisation estimates that 40 billion working hours are spent collecting water each year in Africa – the same as a year’s labour for the entire workforce of France.
As part of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), developing countries and donor governments committed to halving the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015. In 2012, the WHO and UNICEF reported that, as of 2010, the MDG target for safe drinking water had been met. While this is great news, it masks regional disparities: 768 million people across the globe still do not have to access to safe drinking water and 2.5 billion do not have access to adequate sanitation.
The links between a lack of water and sanitation access and development goals are clear, and the solutions to the problem are known and cost-effective. Universal access to improved sanitation could reduce diarrhoea-related deaths by more than one third.
If the Millennium Development Goal targets on water and sanitation are met, there will be 203,000 fewer child deaths in 2015 and children would spend an extra 272 million days in school. Governments could save about 12% of annual public health expenditures.
It would also bring a total annual economic benefit of $22 billion to the continent. It is estimated that every $1 spent on water and sanitation generates $4 in increased economic opportunity.
Since 1990, more than 2 billion people have gained access to improved drinking water sources and 1.8 billion people gained access to improved sanitation. But with 768 million people still without safe drinking water and the sanitation MDG still unmet, scale-up of efforts are needed to ensure safe water and sanitation for all. Specific areas that need to be addressed include urban-rural disparities, poverty-related inequity, and the burden on women and girls.