Millions Face the Life-Threatening Dangers of Poor Sanitation

Article by Anna Kucirkova

Modern sanitation facilities are vital to public health. And while access to sanitary facilities has increased dramatically in the past twenty years, nearly 2.3 billion people still don't have toilets or access to upgraded latrines.

Thankfully, the General Assembly of UN declared access to safe drinking water and modern sanitation as a human right in 2010. International efforts to help provide safe and accessible drinking water and sanitation are underway.

But, in spite of the progress, the 2015 target to cut the proportion of the population without access to improved sanitation facilities in half missed by nearly 700 million people.

There are still hundreds of thousands of people dying each year from diseases directly related to their lack of access to clean water and proper sanitation.

The one element that perpetuates a vicious cycle of disease and poverty is open defecation.

In places where open defecation is widespread, the number of deaths of children under 5 years old are as high as the levels of malnutrition and poverty.

Access to clean water is one of the keys to defeating the deaths of millions around the globe.

The State of Water Sanitation Worldwide

Many humanitarian organizations are supporting initiatives to improve water sanitation, with the Global Water Strategy specifically designed to address the issue.

According to USAID, the objectives are long-term and short-term:

1. Promote sustainable access to safe drinking water and sanitation services, and the adoption of key hygiene behaviors
2. Encourage the sound management and protection of freshwater resources
3. Strengthen water sector governance, financing, and institutions

Thanks to USAID's support, 37.3 million people were granted access to improved water supplies, and 24.1 million people were granted access to modernized sanitation facilities between 2008-2016.

Additionally, in 2016, 3.1 million people were granted sustainable access to cleaner water services, and 3 million people were provided access to upgraded sanitation facilities. USAID has invested more than $441.5 million to improving water and sanitation efforts in 47 countries.

Clean water and improved sanitation are just two steps in improving the overall public health around the world.

The Lack of Good Hygiene Practices

Access to clean water, modern toilets and good hygiene practices are absolutely necessary for the development and safety of children. If they don't have these basic needs, millions of children's lives are at risk.

Tragically, over 800 children under the age of five die every day from preventable diseases; it is their lack of access to proper water, sanitation, and good hygiene that contribute to these deaths.

It is critical that those in developing countries are educated on proper hygiene to help prevent these daily deaths.

The Link Between Poverty and Health

While it is great that we in developing countries have modernized appliances and access to cleaning supplies, people in poverty-stricken areas are not so fortunate.

Poverty and poor health worldwide are inextricably linked. Poverty is both a cause and an effect of poor health. Millions of the poorest and most vulnerable among us are killed or weakened each year by infectious and tropical diseases.

Economic, social and political structures that perpetuate poverty and discrimination must be changed significantly if poverty and poor health are to be addressed aggressively. Marginalized groups are deprived of the information, access, and money they need to prevent and treat disease.

For example, the cost of getting to a health care facility, the doctors' fees, and a course of drugs can be economically devastating. In worst case scenarios, an illness may mean that families sell property, take kids out of school to work or the family must start begging.

The burden of care for a sick family member almost inevitably falls on the women. They lose the opportunity to receive an education and this can affect their futures. They lose out on the opportunities for work, more education, and the ability to save for future emergencies. This perpetuates the cycle of poverty.

In addition, the health of the environment is dictated by human interactions with natural resources.

The Need for Environmental Health

Humans interact with the environment every day. Our contact with the environment affect the quality of everyone's life, the years of healthy life that can be expected, and disparities in overall health.

According to the US Office of Disease Prevention and Health, environmental health is determined by 6 themes that highlight elements of environmental health:

  • Outdoor air quality
  • Surface and ground water quality
  • Toxic substances and hazardous wastes
  • Homes and communities
  • Infrastructure and surveillance
  • Global environmental health

To create a global, healthy environment, scientists must rely on continuing research to help in understanding the effects of exposure to environmental hazards on human health.

According to UNICEF, a lack of clean water and poor environment present multiple common water and sanitation-related diseases:


Diarrhea is caused by a variety of microorganisms including viruses, bacteria and protozoans. Diarrhea causes a person to lose both water and electrolytes, which leads to dehydration and, in some cases, to death.


Long-term exposure to low concentrations of arsenic in drinking-water causes painful skin keratosis (hardened lesions) and can result in cancers of the skin, lungs, bladder and kidney.


Cholera is an acute bacterial infection of the intestinal tract. It causes severe attacks of diarrhea that can quickly lead to acute dehydration and death.


Fluorosis is a serious bone disease caused by high concentrations of fluoride occurring naturally in groundwater. Fluorosis is endemic in at least 25 countries across the globe.

Guinea worm disease

People contract the disease when drinking water contaminated with Dracunculus larvae. The larvae mature into large adult Guinea worms and leave the body after about a year, causing debilitating ulcers.


A hygienic environment, clean water and adequate sanitation are key factors in preventing opportunistic infections associated with HIV/AIDS, and in the quality of life of people living with the disease.

Intestinal Worms

People become infected with intestinal parasitic worms through contact with soil that has been contaminated with human feces from an infected person, or by eating contaminated food.


Malaria is a serious disease caused by a parasite carried by certain types of mosquitoes. Each year, there are 300 million to 500 million cases of malaria, with about 1 million being children.


Schistosomiasis (also known as bilharzia) is a disease caused by parasitic worms. They penetrate the skin of people swimming, bathing or washing in contaminated water.


Trachoma is an eye infection spread mainly through poor hygiene caused by lack of adequate water supplies and unsafe environmental sanitation conditions.


Typhoid fever is a bacterial infection caused by ingesting contaminated food or water. About 12 million people are affected by typhoid every year.

These millions of poor quality environmental deaths can be prevented.

The Astounding Benefits of Quality Sanitation

Benefits of improved sanitation extend well beyond reducing the risk of diarrhea:

  • reducing the spread of intestinal worms, schistosomiasis and trachoma
  • reducing the severity and impact of malnutrition
  • promoting dignity and boosting safety
  • potential recovery of water, renewable energy and nutrients from fecal waste

World Health Organization research in 2012 found that for every $1.00US invested in sanitation, there was a return of $ 5.50US in lower health care costs, higher productivity, and lower numbers of premature deaths.

Those with access to quality sanitation are more likely to hold down a job, pursue an education, and be less at risk for deadly, water-borne diseases. This is especially true for women and girls whose lives are in need of sustainable development.

Creating Sustainable Development Goals

Research suggests that in sub-Saharan Africa, women and girls in poverty-stricken communities spend 40 billion hours per year collecting water. Time lost to gathering water translates to $24 billion in lost global economic benefits every year.

These women and girls not only walk up to 6 kilometers a day to find water, there is no guarantee the water will be clean. In addition, those hours of searching deprive women and girls of the chance at an education or the ability to work a steady job.

To address the issues of vulnerable populations, the United Nations created sustainable development goals in 2015. Some of these goals specifically hope to improve access to basic needs of the population that lives in poverty:

  • End poverty everywhere
  • End hunger, achieve food security, and improve nutrition
  • Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all ages
  • Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
  • Build resilient infrastructure
  • Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

The efforts of the global community have been marginally successful across the years, but the population of the Earth is decades away from achieving significant change in water and sanitation concerns.


As billions continue to live in abject poverty and atrocious conditions, the governments and organizations of the world continue to work toward sustainable solutions. Millions are dying every day due to poor sanitation and lack of clean water.

If you want to help resolve this situation, the simplest thing you can do it support the ongoing work of organizations that are on the front line of the sanitation crisis. While you may not be able to pick up and travel to a developing nation, you can play a critical part in the organizations that can do that.

This article was originally published by Connect for Water and is republished here with permission.