Feb 13, 2017


Safe drinking WAter, Sanitation, and Hygiene—collectively known as WASH—are essential for stopping deaths from diarrheal disease and other illnesses. Good health is simply not possible without WASH.


Safe drinking water


Water truly is life. Safe water is critical for preventing diarrheal disease as well as pneumonia, and good health is simply not possible without it.


But safe drinking water still eludes more than 780 million people, causing hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths from diarrhea.1


While there is still much to be done, 2012 brought good news in safe water: The United Nations announced that the global Millennium Development Goal to halve the number of people without safe drinking water has been met. Since 1990, more than 2 billion people have gained access to improved drinking water sources.2


The problem persists, however, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where rural and poor communities lack infrastructure that ensures safe drinking water. This burden, and the constant search for a safe water supply, falls most heavily on girls and women.


At PATH, our Safe Water Project set out to understand the role of commercial markets in increasing access to safe drinking water in poor communities. Projects in India, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Kenya explored distribution channels and microfinance models for direct and retail sales of inexpensive household water treatment and safe storage (HWTS) products. We learned from users about improving existing products and making them more culturally appropriate, as well as about generating demand in their communities. The project found that market-based approaches can extend the reach of public health programs, maximizing efficiency and leveraging the private sector. (Explore the Safe Water Project’s activities and lessons in its close-out report, Perspectives.)


2/3 of the global population without safe drinking water live in 10 countries




Basic sanitation is a fundamental human right, but 2 billion people have no sanitation facilities or latrines—that’s one in every three people!


Bright blue and white latrine outside of a school
Lack of sanitation and open defecation are major causes of diarrhea deaths.


Lack of sanitation creates serious health risks, including endemic diarrhea. Open defecation remains a major contributor to the fatal spread of diarrheal disease.3


A safe place to answer "nature’s call” should be  available to everyone. In fact, the UN Human Rights Council recognizes the right to water and sanitation as legally binding in international law. But worldwide, 2 billion people have no appropriate sanitation facilities or latrines. 3


Despite progress, the world failed to meet the UN Millennium Development Goal to halve the number of people without access to appropriate sanitation by 2015. We are on the right track—1.8 billion more people have sanitation today than 20 years ago 5—but we need to accelerate our advances. The 2015 Sustainable Development Goal builds on this momentum, targeting access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and an end to open defecation by 2030, with special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations.4


PATH's strategic approach addresses sanitation access and sustainability in four key areas: market approaches, technology and products, financing, and an overall sanitation framework with focus on the end-user. 


Only half of developing countries have access to improved sanitation.




Handwashing with soap is a powerful diarrhea prevention tool and could save the lives of more than 350,000 children every year!5 It’s simple, it’s cheap, and its impact is dramatic.


Mother and son in Zambia washing their hands together.
Handwashing with soap could eliminate nearly half of all diarrhea infections.


If all communities practiced universal handwashing, diarrhea risk would drop by nearly half.6


Handwashing with soap can achieve major reductions in childhood diarrhea and pneumonia by breaking the transmission cycle. Since diarrheal infections are transmitted through the fecal-oral route, routine handwashing eliminates the bacteria and viruses that cause diarrhea, particularly when regularly practiced after using the toilet, after changing a baby’s diaper, and before preparing food.


Behavior change and supportive health policies are key to ensuring handwashing and the benefits it can bring. Education about hygiene in the home, at school, and throughout the community can be powerful tools. See how WASH in schools programs in Zambia are educating the next generation.


Handwashing reduces diarrhea morbidity by 37%


1 UNICEF. Committing to child survival: A promise renewed. 2012. New York: Unicef; 2012.
2 UNICEF/WHO. Progress on drinking water and sanitation, 2012 update. New York: Unicef and WHO;2012.
3 UNICEF/WHO. Progress on Household Drinking Water, Sanitation and Hygiene 2000-2017: Special focus on inequalities. New York: UNICEF and WHO;2019.
4 United Nations. Global Goal 6: Clean Water & Sanitation web page. Available at: http://www.globalgoals.org/global-goals/clean-water-sanitation/. (Accessed November 12, 2015.)
5 Greenland K,  Cairncross S, Curtis V. What can hand hygiene do for the world? 2012. London, UK: Environmental Health Group, Department of Disease Control, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.


Photo credits, top to bottom:

David Jacobs.
PATH/Gareth Bentley.

PATH/Gareth Bentley.