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What is WASH?

Importance of WASH

WASH is WAter supply, Sanitation and Hygiene. There is a water and sanitation crisis. Across the world over 700 million people do not have access to safe water and 2.5 billion people live without adequate sanitation. It is a silent crisis, because it affects primarily those who have the least power to speak up: women, children, and those living in extreme poverty.

Every year, 700,000 children die from diarrhoea directly caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation. Hundreds of millions miss school as a result of being ill, or having to collect water Adults miss work through illness, and women lose all their time collecting and carrying water, whether from travelling to distant wells or queuing at standpipes Women searching for privacy to use the toilet or looking for water can be at higher risk of physical violence, including sexual attacks. Improving access to water, sanitation and hygiene is crucial for human and economic development.

Click here to read more about how inadequate WASH is holding back development.

Access to WASH is concerned with the potential for governments to make progress in providing water and sanitation for their citizens, through a favourable policy environment backed by the necessary finance. Therefore, the core focus of is monitoring progress on policies linked to political declarations, and government budgetary allocations over time. However, it is also important to be able to know what progress is being made in extending services to the unserved, i.e. what proportion of a country's citizens have access to WASH and how this is this changing over time.

There are a number of ways to measure access, and governments often use a combination of databases and household surveys. These surveys are usually carried out by each government in their own way, with different definitions and parameters, which means that the results are usually not comparable across countries. In order to overcome this problem, the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation (JMP) collates government surveys and standardises them in order to produce comparable figures.

JMP is the official United Nations mechanism tasked with monitoring progress towards the Millennium Development Goals' (MDGs) drinking water and sanitation target. To download the latest JMP report, tables and graphs of the comparable data, or for more information on the JMP method, visit shows JMP data on its country pages because it is comparable across countries. Many Governments prefer to quote their latest household surveys in their own documentation – the best source of this information is the website of the national statistics bureau or equivalent. Information about the latest surveys can also often be found through the Household Survey Network -

For a more detailed exploration of issues around monitoring access to water and sanitation, click here.

For some more detailed exploration of issues around monitoring access to water and sanitation, and to contribute your thoughts on the issue, please see the WASHwatch blog.

WASH and health

The lack of basic water and sanitation services, along with poor hygiene, causes the spread of diseases which claim the lives of thousands of young children every day.

Diarrhoea is the second biggest killer of children in the world, causing more than 1 in 10 child deaths, and poor WASH directly causes 90% of these deaths. There are approximately four billion cases of diarrhoea each year; it is mainly spread by pathogens from human waste being transferred from people's hands to their mouths, or through drinking water contaminated with human faeces. If people drink safe water, use a decent toilet, and wash their hands at critical times (such as before eating), they are far less likely to ingest the pathogens that cause diarrhoea.

There are other diseases which kill large numbers of people, which can be prevented by adequate WASH. The most important of these is pneumonia, the biggest killer of children. One key way that pneumonia is transmitted is via dirty hands, and handwashing with soap has been found to reduce pneumonia by up to 50%. Water and Sanitation are recognised as key interventions to prevent diarrhoea and pneumonia in the UNs new Global Action Plan for Pneumonia and Diarrhoea (GAPP-D).

At the same time, many of the diseases that children succumb to are more fatal to the poorest because they are weakened by malnutrition. Water and sanitation are defined as ‘malnutrition sensitive’ interventions, and the WHO estimates that 50% of all malnutrition is caused by lack of WASH. It will be impossible to eliminate malnutrition without achieving universal access to WASH.

Looking at all these elements, it is not possible to overstate the importance of safe water and sanitation to public health.

Water as a human right

Increasing attention is now being given to using the 'right to water' to shape policy and action and to taking a human rights approach to development and water programmes. The term "human rights" refers to those rights and freedoms essential for human survival, liberty and dignity that have been recognised by the global community and protected by international legal instruments.

Human rights are not limited to things like freedom of speech, but include all those rights essential for human survival and development in dignity. They include the right to a standard of living adequate for health and wellbeing and the right to education.

In 2002 the UN adopted 'General Comment No. 15' on the right to water, which provides guidelines for states on the interpretation of the right to water. It affirms that "the human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses". It also outlines associated state obligations regarding respecting, protecting and fulfilling the right to water.

To learn more about the right to water, visit