Water and Sanitation "Most Neglected Public Health Danger"

Danger A recent cholera outbreak in the southern African country of Angola has sickened 43,000 people and claimed more than 1,600 lives since it began in February, according to the New York Times. Yet cholera is a preventable disease, spread primarily through human contact with contaminated water or sewage. It and other water-related diseases are responsible for up to 80 percent of all illnesses and deaths in the developing world, where people often lack access to clean water and sanitation facilities. According to David Douglas, president of the nonprofit group Water Advocates, water and sanitation is “the most neglected public health danger in the world.”

Every month, water-related diseases—which also include typhoid, ringworm, and dengue fever—kill more people than the estimated 250,000 individuals lost in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunamis. More than 1.1 billion people worldwide, or one-sixth of the global population, do not have access to safe drinking water, and nearly 2.6 billion lack access to basic sanitation, according to the World Health Organization. While the share of people worldwide with access to improved sanitation facilities increased from 49 percent in 1990 to 58 percent in 2002, much more needs to be done to achieve the internationally agreed goals on water and sanitation by 2015.

Because many water-related diseases are preventable, even small efforts can go a long way. WaterAid, an international charity dedicated to improving access to water and sanitation for the world's poorest people, estimates the cost of providing safe water, adequate sanitation, and hygiene training at just $25 a head. Ryan Hreljac of Canada began raising funds to build African wells at the age of six. Now a teenager, he has established a foundation responsible for constructing 201 wells in 10 different countries. And an initially small-scale Carter Center project in Ethiopia aimed at reducing the rate of blindness-inducing trachoma, a disease spread through inadequate sanitation, has resulted in the construction of more than 89,000 latrines.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.