Linking Water, Sanitation, and the Health Sector

Last month, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Global Health Policy Center released “Enhancing U.S. Leadership on Drinking Water and Sanitation – Opportunities within Global Health Programs,” a report detailing the links between water, sanitation, and the health sector, and highlighting areas for greater U.S. engagement.

The author, Katherine E. Bliss, notes that while nearly 10 percent of the global burden of disease can be attributed to water, the U.S. remains a small donor to the sector. She also illustrates how domestic support for such projects has grown in the U.S., citing a 2009 poll that showed 61 percent put improving access to safe drinking water at the top of a list of issues Americans believe should be global health priorities for the U.S. government.

Why hasn’t the U.S. been a leader in water and sanitation issues? Bliss suggests this is because in the U.S., and much of the world, water quality, supply and sanitation services are the responsibility of environmental protection agencies, not health agencies, resulting in the absence of this sector in high level global health policy discussions. Further, U.S. social conventions limit discussion of diarrheal disease, toilets, and personal hygiene.

Following the 2005 Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act, Obama’s announcement of a new Global Health Initiative, and the proposed 2009 Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act, Bliss believes the time is right for U.S. agencies to assert political leadership in this arena.

Here are some of the actions Bliss recommends:

  • The U.S. should strengthen its own commitment to global health by increasing funding for projects at the intersection of water and health and by scaling up technical assistance initiatives.
  • The U.S. should share its own history and experience improving health by addressing water, sanitation, and hygiene issues.
  • It should encourage greater commitment to action on water, sanitation, and hygiene through high-level advocacy within global health coordinating bodies, including the World Health Assembly, as well as at the UNICEF Executive Board meetings, the G-8, the G-20, the United Nations General Assembly, and other high-level discussions.
  • The United States should support the naming of a dynamic, high-profile United Nations special envoy on WSH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) issues to serve as a high-level advocate for the sector and, in particular, to confront the social challenges of discussing sanitation and hygiene issues.

You can read the full report here.