WASH Advocates closed in December 2015. The information on this page was last updated at that time and may not be the most up-to-date.
The acronym “WASH” stands for water, sanitation, and hygiene. These basic necessities of life are not available to many people in developing countries all around the world. Access to WASH is a basic human right, and lack of access is not only an injustice but is detrimental to economic productivity, childhood survival, public health, education, environmental conservation, climate resilience, and much more.
On December 19th, 2014, President Obama signed the into law. The law will improve the well-being, education, economic opportunity, safety and dignity of 2.4 million people in the world who live without a basic latrine every day. By improving USAID’s focus on the poorest of the poor and the countries and communities suffering most from water-related diseases, like undernutrition and pneumonia, Water for the World will save many lives. Most importantly, it will use current funding for water, sanitation and hygiene more effectively.
Diarrhea and pneumonia, often caused by lack of WASH, kill millions of children each year. Diarrhea and malnutrition associated with WASH leads to stunting and decreased cognitive ability in children, negatively affecting the rest of their lives. Unsafe drinking water and poor sanitation form a vicious cycle of disease and poverty in communities without access to WASH.
Malnutrition and diarrheal disease are closely linked. When it does not kill, repeated bouts of early childhood diarrhea can negatively affect physical and cognitive development. Reductions in diarrheal disease, which could be achieved by providing improved sanitation and water supply, can prevent long-term morbidity and at least 860,000 child deaths a year caused by undernutrition
Though disease incidence and infection is complicated, the way we get sick is not. Increasing handwashing education and facilities in schools, households, and the community helps eliminate one of the primary routes of infection.
A study in Kenya revealed schools that received water treatment and hygiene promotion led to a 58 percent reduction in girls’ absenteeism. A major reason girls drop out of school is a lack of adequate sanitation facilities. Providing the dignity of gender-specific bathrooms, especially as girls reach puberty, can have far-reaching effects as more women complete their schooling.
Investing in WASH is one of the most cost-efficient and effective ways to achieve progress many development sectors.
The UN General Assembly adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September 2015 to build on the Millennium Development Goals and set even more ambitious targets. Goal 6 of the SDGs aims to achieve universal access to safe drinking water and improved sanitation and hygiene by 2030.
Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
The SDGs diverge from the MDGs in that they call for an integrated approach among sectors. Achieving universal WASH access is a key component in achieving many of the other goals:
Universal WASH access will play a major role in eradicating poverty. Lack of adequate sanitation costs the world 260 billion dollars a year, which is more than the entire GDP of 140 countries. Time spent collecting water represents a large economic loss. This is time that could be spent at an income-generating job, caring for family members or attending school. For every dollar invested in WASH, four dollars is returned to the global economy.
WASH is a critical component to ensuring adequate nutrition. When children without WASH access become sick, their bodies cannot absorb all of the nutrients from the food they consume, and much of their energy is spent fighting disease. Even when children are well fed, they can still experience stunting and malnutrition because of poor water and sanitation. Access to WASH is vital to nutrition interventions and ensures that women and children can fully use the nutrients they consume.
Access to WASH is a critical component to preventing the spread of diseases like Ebola, polio, and cholera. Diarrhea and pneumonia, often caused by lack of WASH, kill millions of children each year. Integrating WASH into specific neglected tropical disease programs has proven an effective strategy for reducing disease and handwashing with soap is one of the most effective ways to prevent infections.
Providing schools with safe drinking water and improved sanitation facilities is essential to ensuring that every child receives a quality education. Inadequate WASH makes children more susceptible to waterborne diseases such as intestinal worms and diarrheal disease. Constant illness increases absenteeism and decreases a child’s ability to learn. Girls are disproportionately affected by lack of WASH in schools; without a safe, clean place to change sanitary materials or wash hands girls cannot attend school while they are menstruating.
Women and girls are disproportionately affected by a lack of safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene and are generally the primary water collectors in families. Women can spend hours each day collecting water for their families — time that could be spent on other activities. In addition, when latrines are not available in households, women and girls will seek privacy after dark to defecate outside of their homes, exposing them to a greater risk of harassment and sexual assault. Providing access to WASH close to home and involving women in the WASH process contributes to women’s empowerment and equality.
The MDGs, adopted in 2000, aimed to eradicate extreme hunger and poverty; achieve universal primary education; empower women and promote gender equality; reduce child mortality; improve maternal health; combat diseases; ensure environmental sustainability and increased access to improved water and sanitation facilities; and develop a global partnership for development by 2015.
The world has come a long way since the establishment of the Millennium Development Goals in 2000, but as they draw to a close in 2015, it is clear that we still have a long way to go.
The target for safe drinking water was met 5 years ahead of schedule in 2010. Since 1990, 2.6 billion people have gained access to an improved drinking water source, bringing coverage to 91% of the world’s population and exceeding the original goal of 88%. However, millions more still lack access to improved drinking water sources.
The target for sanitation, however, has been missed by almost 700 million people. Since 1990, 2.1 billion people have gained access to an improved sanitation facility (for a total of 68% of the global population) but more than 2 billion are still without access.
Liu, et al. (2012). Global, regional, and national causes of child mortality: An updated systematic analysis for 2010 with time trends since 2000. 379(9832), 2151-2161.
Guerrant, R., et al. (2006). Early Childhood Diarrhea Predicts Impaired School Performance. . 25(6), 513-20.
Curtis, V. & Cairncross, S. (2003). Effect of washing hands with soap on diarrhoea risk in the community: a systematic review. 3, 275-281.
Freeman, M., et al. (2012). Assessing the impact of a school-based water treatment, hygiene and sanitation programme on pupil absence in Nyanza Province, Kenya: a cluster-randomized trial. 17(3), 380-391. Retrieved from:
Freeman, M., et al. (2014). Systematic review: Hygiene and Health: systematic review of handwashing practices worldwide and update of health effects. 19(8), 906-916. Retrieved from:
WHO. (2012). Global costs and benefits of drinking-water supply and sanitation interventions to reach the MDG target and universal coverage. Retrieved from the WHO website: