Without Water: The Global Impact of Water Poverty

Action Against Hunger's life-saving water, sanitation, & hygiene programs
Boy in Burundi washing at a water point. Photo courtesy: E. Simiand.

The figures are staggering: one billion people without clean water, 2.5 billion without proper sanitation. But numbers alone can’t convey the daily indignities, nor can they measure the tragedy of so many lives lost when there’s not enough water.

The Impact of Poor Water

When Action Against Hunger intervenes to halt the spread of acute malnutrition, we do two things: address the immediate crisis (i.e., children threatened with death by starvation) and tackle the underlying causes. More often than not, the underlying causes of extreme hunger have to do with access to food and water. This may seem obvious, but finding solutions isn’t always easy.

While our longer-term Food Security programs seek solutions involving income and food production, our WASH teams (Water, Sanitation, & Hygiene) address a range of challenging factors in a wide array of contexts—from emergency water provisions in refugee camps, to vital infrastructure destroyed by natural disasters, to more structural solutions for rural communities lacking water resources.

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But beyond the obvious need to save lives in an emergency, what’s the connection to malnutrition?

Poor water and sanitation are a leading cause of malnutrition. Water-borne diseases—cholera, dysentery, typhoid, giardia, etc.—further erode the weakened immune system of a hungry child and compromise basic body functions. And a malnourished child is at much great risk of succumbing to illness, especially when her community’s water source is unsafe.

The impact of poor water is multiplied as waves of diarrhea weaken millions of children month after month, reinforcing malnutrition, and sapping a family's resources and economic prospects. As a result, 2.2 million children die each year from water-related causes—including 1.5 million lives lost because of poor sanitation.

Extending Water & Sanitation Improvements

The good news is we know what is needed, and the solutions are inexpensive. But it requires more than just drilling a hole in the ground—narrow technical know-how is not sufficient.

Action Against Hunger’s community-based WASH programs offer lasting improvements; the challenge is to scale up these efforts. What impact could we have if we committed to improving water resources for children around the world? One recent study estimates the following health benefits:

  • Improved water supply reduces diarrhea by 25%
  • Improved sanitation reduces diarrhea by 32%
  • Hygiene interventions, like the promotion of hand washing, reduce cases of diarrhea by 45%
  • Improvements in water quality through household water treatment—such as chlorination at point of use and adequate domestic storage—reduce diarrhea by 39%.

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Sustaining Community-Based Solutions

ACF’s WASH expertise centers on building capacity at the community level to ensure sustainable access to clean water and sound sanitation. Developing and extending water and sanitation services involves much more than quick technical fixes. Our programs’ long-term benefits could not be sustained without active community participation. By organizing and training community-based water committees, we ensure local commitment to managing and maintaining the systems we rehabilitate and install; only the cultivation of local know-how can ensure its sustainability.

Action Against Hunger will continue to do its part to address the most glaring cases of water poverty—those where acute malnutrition threatens young lives—but a much larger investment in public health infrastructure is needed to keep children from dying needless deaths. All over the world.

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