Unclean water and a lack of basic sanitation are undermining efforts to end extreme poverty and disease in the world’s poorest countries. Sub-Saharan Africa faces some of the biggest challenges: 358 million people in the region lacked access to clean water and nearly 600 million lacked access to proper sanitation facilities. 82% of those who lack access to improved water live in rural areas, while just 18% live in urban areas.Together, unclean water and poor sanitation are a leading cause of child mortality. An estimated 1,553 children die every day from diarrhoea, spread through poor sanitation and hygiene. Women are more than twice as likely as men to be responsible for water collection. On average, women and girls in developing countries walk six kilometres each day to collect water – time which could be spent in school or at work. Additionally, more than half of girls who drop out of primary school in sub-Saharan Africa do so because of a lack of separate toilets and easy access to safe water.
A lack of reliable, clean water access also has deep socio-economic impacts. In total, the World Health Organisation estimates that 140 million working hours are spent collecting water each year in Africa, primarily by women and girls.
As part of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), developing countries and donor governments committed to halving the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015. In 2012, the WHO and UNICEF reported that, as of 2010, the MDG target for safe drinking water had been met. While this is great news, it masks regional disparities: nearly 750 million people across the globe still do not have to access to safe drinking water and 2.5 billion do not have access to adequate sanitation.
In Africa alone, universal access to water and sanitation would bring an estimated annual economic benefit of $22 billion, and African women would particularly benefit from such increased access. Today, women and girls in sub-Saharan Africa spend up to 4 hours per day fetching water; without this burden, women could increase their agricultural farm yields by 20-30%. Reducing the distance to a water source has also been identified as a way to empower women, especially regarding girls’ school attendance. Studies have shown that with clean water and accessible toilet facilities, girl school enrolment rates increase by over 15%.
Since 1990, more than 2 billion people have gained access to improved drinking water sources and 1.8 billion people gained access to improved sanitation. But with hundreds of millions of people still without safe drinking water and progress towards the sanitation MDG still off-track, scale-up of efforts are needed to ensure safe water and sanitation for all. Specific areas that need to be addressed include urban-rural disparities, poverty-related inequity, and the burden on women and girls.