Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH)

Safe water, toilets and good hygiene keep children alive and healthy.

Growing up in a clean and safe environment is every child’s right. Access to clean water, basic toilets, and good hygiene practices not only keeps children thriving, but also gives them a healthier start in life.

Despite COVID-19 putting the spotlight on the importance of hand hygiene to prevent the spread of disease, three billion people worldwide, including hundreds of millions of school-going children, do not have access to handwashing facilities with replica watches soap. People living in rural areas, urban slums, disaster-prone areas and low-income countries are the most vulnerable and the most affected.

Key facts

  • Worldwide, 2.2 billion people still lack access to safe drinking water.
  • More than half of the global population does not have access to safe sanitation.
  • Three billion people do not have access to handwashing facilities with soap.
  • Still, 673 million people practice open defecation.

The consequences of unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) on children can be deadly. Over 700 children under age 5 die every day of diarrhoeal diseases due to lack of appropriate WASH services. In areas of conflict, children are nearly 20 times more likely to die from diarrhoeal disease than from the conflict itself.

Everyone has the human right to safe drinking water. This holds true in stability and in crisis, in urban and rural contexts, and in every country around the world. When children don’t have access to clean water, it negatively impacts their health, nutrition, education and every other aspect of their lives. Girls, women and people living with disabilities are particularly impacted.

The United Nations’ goals include achieving access to safe and affordable drinking water for all by 2030. Yet, the current level of global investment is about one third of what is needed to achieve this target.

Sanitation is about more than just toilets. Behaviours, facilities and services together provide the hygienic environment children need to fight diseases and grow up healthy.

Poor sanitation puts children at risk of childhood diseases and malnutrition that can impact their overall development, learning and, later in life, economic opportunities. While some parts of the world have improved access to sanitation, millions of children in poor and rural areas have been left behind.

Lack of sanitation can be a barrier to individual prosperity and sustainable development. When children, especially girls, cannot access private and decent sanitation facilities in their schools and learning environments, the right to education is threatened. As adults, wage earners who miss work due to illness may find themselves in financial peril. And when health systems become overwhelmed and productivity levels fall, entire economies suffer.

Without basic sanitation services, people have no choice but to use inadequate communal latrines or to practise open defecation, posing a risk to health and livelihoods.

Even in communities with toilets, waste containment may not be adequate. If they are difficult to clean or not designed or maintained to safely contain, transport and treat excreta, for example, waste might come into contact with people and the environment. These factors make sustainable development nearly impossible.

Open defecation

The practice of defecating in the open (such as in fields, bushes, or by bodies of water) can be devastating for public health.

Exposed faecal matter contaminates food, water and the environment, and can spread serious diseases, such as cholera. Coupled with poor hygiene practices, exposure to faecal matter remains a leading cause of child mortality, morbidity, undernutrition and stunting, and can negatively impact a child’s cognitive development.

Harmful to community health and well-being, open defecation can also undermine individual dignity and safety – especially for girls and women. When forced to travel greater distances from home to reach adequate hygiene facilities, girls are women are put at greater risk of violence.

Good hygiene is critical for preventing the spread of infectious diseases and helping children lead long, healthy lives. It also prevents them from missing school, resulting in better learning outcomes.

For families, good hygiene means avoiding illness and spending less on health care. In some contexts, it can also secure a family’s social status and help individuals maintain self-confidence.

Yet, important hygiene behaviours are difficult to practice without the right knowledge and skills, adequate community support and the belief that one’s own behaviour can actually make a difference.

Many children around the world live in conditions that make it difficult to maintain good hygiene. Where homes, schools and health centres have dirt floors; where water for handwashing is unavailable; and even where families share spaces with domestic animals; maintaining hygiene can be a challenge. What’s more, practicing good hygiene is often perceived as a woman’s responsibility, adding to her burden of care.