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Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Global Issues | Water and Sanitation

Sustainable access to clean water and proper sanitation are critical for the wellbeing of everyone. The United Nations has declared water and sanitation access an essential human right, necessary for the full enjoyment of all other human rights.1 Water and sanitation are also key elements for disease prevention. According to the World Health Organization, a significant amount of disease, including many of the 1.8 million deaths caused by diarrheal diseases each year, could be prevented through improved access to safe water supply, adequate sanitation facilities, and improved hygiene practices. 2

Currently, 1.1 billion3 people in developing countries lack adequate access to clean water. This means that their water source is too far away, is polluted, or does not provide a sufficient amount of water to meet people's daily needs. 4 Even in regions that are considered water-rich, lack of basic infrastructure can present water access challenges.5 Communities may lack the resources necessary for transporting clean, useable water to communities or for protecting water sources from contamination. Without reliable access to water, people have little choice but to consume unsafe water, often resulting in waterborne diseases, such as viral hepatitis , typhoid , cholera , and dysentery .6

Although health concerns are a direct result of not having access to clean water, there can be social consequences as well. In many regions of the world, women and girls are responsible for fetching and carrying water from distant sources. Often, this task consumes a large part of the day, preventing many girls from being able to attend school. For these reasons, improved water sources , such as piped household water connections, public standpipes , protected wells or springs, and rainwater collection systems, can have a crucial impact on a community's health and wellbeing.

Improving access to basic sanitation is another key to improving community health and preventing waterborne illness. Basic sanitation is the lowest-cost technology for ensuring the safe disposal of human waste and providing a clean and healthful living environment.7 Access to basic sanitation also includes having safety and privacy in the use of these services.7 Improved sanitation facilities include latrines, septic tanks, and public sewer systems. It is estimated that 42% of the world's population, 2.6 billion people, do not have access to basic sanitation.

Where there is no access to basic sanitation, people must dispose of human waste in places like rivers and streams, or they must dispose of it in the open. Open defecation, a daily practice for over 1 billion people worldwide,9 poses an especially significant threat to human health by increasing people's exposure to disease-causing germs, or pathogens .

In developed countries like the United States, clean water and basic sanitation services are available to the vast majority of people through public water supply and sewage systems.10 However, water supply and infrastructure challenges are a growing concern for the United States, as many states with high per capita water usage also have growing populations.11 Based on water usage statistics and anticipated population growth, 36 states anticipate water shortages in the near future.12 For this reason, the Environmental Protection Agency is working to promote water conservation measures, such as the use of water-saving plumbing fixtures, efficient irrigation, and limiting water consumption during everyday tasks like showering and washing dishes.13

High per capita water usage by a growing U.S. population can also have an impact on water quality. In many older cities, waste water is directed to combined sewer systems , which collect rainwater runoff, domestic sewage, and industrial wastewater in the same pipe.14 When there is more wastewater than the system can handle, untreated sewage-including human waste-can overflow directly into rivers and streams, posing threats to human health, aquatic life, and the safe use of waterways for activities like fishing and swimming.

In the developing world, governments and international organizations are focused on the Millennium Development Goals' target of halving the proportion of the world's population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.15 Over the past two decade, 1.6 billion people have gained access to improved water sources , but coverage remains low in several regions of the world, including the Pacific Islands and Sub-Saharan Africa.15 There is also a gap between urban and rural areas, with about 94% of urban areas having access to clean drinking water, compared to 76% of rural areas.15 This gap is even larger when it comes to sanitation. In developing regions, 68% of urban areas have access to an improved sanitation facility , compared with only 40% of rural areas.15 This discrepancy is especially large in Southern Asia, the Pacific Islands, and Sub-Saharan Africa15

Government agencies and international development organizations are working with countries to address these issues. The United States remains one of the largest donors to water and sanitation activities in the developing world, accounting for 10 percent of all official assistance to international water and sanitation projects.16

Peace Corps Volunteers who work in the field of water and sanitation engage in projects like tapping springs, constructing wells, and building latrines. They may also improve potable water storage facilities and work with community members to improve public awareness of water, sanitation, health, and environmental issues.17 Peace Corps Volunteers are also trained in the field of health, working to educate communities about healthful practices related to water and sanitation, and providing health education workshops alongside community leaders.


Basic sanitation : The lowest-cost technology for the safe disposal of human waste and a clean and healthful living environment

Combined sewer systems: Underground systems of pipes that collect rainwater runoff, domestic sewage,

and industrial wastewater.

Cholera: A disease caused by waterborne bacteria that affects the lower intestine and causes severe vomiting and diarrhea

Dysentery: A digestive disorder caused by bacteria, viruses, protozoa, or parasites resulting in intestinal inflammation, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea

Diarrheal disease: Any gastrointestinal illness that causes diarrhea; can lead to dehydration and an impaired immune system

Improved sanitation facility : Technologies such as toilets, latrines, septic tanks, and sewer systems that safely dispose of human waste

Improved water source : Technologies such as piped household water connections and protected wells and springs that prevent water from contaminants

Infrastructure: Basic facilities and services needed for a society or community to function

Pathogens: Disease-causing organisms

Potable: Drinkable

Standpipe : A pipe fitted with a tap or pump to safely deliver water from a storage or underground source

Typhoid: An infectious disease caused by Salmonella bacteria ingested from food or water; leads to fever, intestinal irritation, and red spots on the skin

Viral hepatitis : A liver infection caused by ingesting food or water contaminated with a virus

Waterborne diseases : Infections transmitted through ingestion of contaminated water



1. World Health Organization (WHO)
2. World Health Organization (WHO)
3. World Health Organization (WHO)
4. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
5. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
6. Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC)
7. World Health Organization (WHO)
8. World Health Organization (WHO)
9. World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF
10. U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)
11. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
12. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
13. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
14. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
15. United Nations Millennium Development Goals
16. U.S. Department of State
17. Peace Corps