Water and health

Financial inputs have been insufficient to tackle mortality caused by unsafe water.

Unsafe water is the world’s leading cause of death

If water naturally is a source of life, unsafe water conversely is the world’s leading cause of death and causes 5 million deaths each year, mostly among children. Fighting waterborne disease remains a major challenge in developing countries in which water can transmit a large number of diseases given the lack or inefficiency of sanitation infrastructure and issues with safe drinking water provision. Poor water quality and a lack of sanitation infrastructure negatively affect not only on health but also food safety and education chances for poor households around the world.


What quality standard for water in developing countries?

In France, the water distributed by service providers must comply to 54 bacteriological and physico-chemical criteria to be considered suitable for human consumption. Should we apply the same water quality standards worldwide? Can we adopt less stringent norms? Are we at risk to see the inflation in the number and level of normative requirements in developed economies widen the gap with developing countries, where drinkability standards endlessly drift away?

Water lies at the heart of all developing countries’ public health concerns. (Re)sources highlighted the importance of revising World Health Organization water quality standards for countries who do not have the capacity to reach them. Indeed, this level of requirements tends to generate a pure and simple blockage from local authorities who are trying too hard to comply to these norms without ever being managing to. As Guy Carcassonne would put it, we have to find the optimal equilibrium level that balances acceptable water quality standards and large numbers of beneficiaries with the countries’ capacity.


A safe water target finally included in the 2015-2030 agenda

According to Gérard Payen, advisor to the UN Secretary General on water and sanitation and member of (Re)sources, “There has been a huge misunderstanding on the Millenium Development Goals indicator: this indicator measured the number of individuals with access to a source of water free of animal contamination without assessing whether this water was potable or not. Everybody considered that access to safe water was being measured since it was the goal of this indicator. Hence, quite ironically, the issue of access to water is nowadays much higher than it ever was indicated to be: roughly between 3 and 4 billion still lack access to safe water.

The Sustainable Development Goals target is now to achieve universal access to continuous and reliable safe drinking water, instead of a source of water that simply has not been in contact with cattle. The goal is also to reduce by half the amount of wastewater discharged without treatment, which requires to develop new infrastructure in order to treat 40% of the current volume of wastewater worldwide. In that matter, SDG Goal Number 6 represents a major improvement and step forward towards a universal access to improved safe water.

To go further, please refer to the “Water and Health” seminar organized by (Re)sources in 2008 in Annecy.




  • Poor populations typically pay 10 times the regulated market prices to buy a water that tends to be of poor quality.
  • Unsafe water kills 5 billion individuals each year, including 1.8 billion children.
  • At the international level, diarrhoea kills more than tuberculosis or malaria.
  • Water-borne disease kill up to 3.2 billion people a year, which represents about 6% of all deaths in the world.
  • Each year, lack of access to potable water causes a financial loss of USD 1.6 billion on developing countries’ health systems.
  • A reduction of diarrhoea would, on its own, represent a gain of 3.2 million days of work for the 15-59 year-old.
  • Lack of access to water and sanitation services costs USD 170 billion, or 2.6% of developing countries GDP.
  • Water programs represent less than 5% of total international development aid whereas more than twice this effort would be needed.

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Water and health