Community infrastructure needs - water and sanitation

Community infrastructure needs - water and sanitation

How can the global water and sanitation crisis be addressed?

Clean water and sanitation are among the most powerful drivers for human development. They extend opportunity, enhance dignity and help create a good cycle of improving health and rising wealth. 

  • Currently 2.6 billion people around the world, 72% of whom live in Asia, lack access to an improved sanitation facility
  • 17% of the world’s population still practice open defecation
  • 884 million people around the world do not use improved sources of drinking water
  • 3.575 million people die each year from water-related disease
  • Each year 1.4 million children die as a result of diarrhoea which is more common when there is a shortage of clean water for drinking, cooking and cleaning
  • At the current rate of progress, the world will miss the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) forsanitation by a billion people
  • On current trends the world is on track to meet the MDG drinking water target although coverage in sub-Saharan Africa is still very low, with only 60% of the population served
“Not having access to water and sanitation is a polite euphemism for a form of deprivation that threatens life, destroys opportunity and undermines human dignity.” UNDP Human Development Report 2006
“One of the many things I learned as President was the centrality of water in the social, political and economic affairs of the country, the continent and the world.” Nelson Mandela at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, 2002

Further Reading

WHO/UNICEF JMP (2010) Progress on Sanitation & Drinking Water United Nations (2010) The MDG Report WHO (2008) Safer Water, Better Health: Costs, benefits, and sustainability of interventions to protect and promote health UNDP (2006) Human Development Report

Put water and sanitation high on the political agenda, and invest in it

There is no doubt that water is moving up the political agenda but more needs to be done if the MDG targets are to be met.

President Barack Obama affirmed USA’s commitment to help the developing world in his inauguration speech: “To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.” USA President Barack Obama - Inauguration Speech, 20 January 2008

Governments should to take a lead role in water and sanitation policy reforms and:

  1. Make water a human right and mean it
  2. Formulate attainable national strategies for improving Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH)
  3. Focus on sustainable water and sanitation service delivery, and “make maintenance matter”
  1. Promote community-led hygiene initiatives to eliminate open defecation. Initiatives such as the Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) have been successful in improving hygiene and promoting behavioural change
  2. Capacity building in WASH starting at community level and creating WASH advocates within national policy makers

Economic benefits from water and sanitation

  • Business and capital will be attracted to those economies where reforms in water and sanitation have been introduced
  • Access to water and sanitation equips people to get themselves out of poverty and to contribute to national prosperity
  • Every US$1 spent in the water and sanitation sector will create on average another US$8 in costs averted and productivity gained (school attendance, time savings) (World Economic Forum 2009)

Further reading

World Economic Forum Water Initiative (January 2009) The Bubble Is Close to Bursting UNICEF (2009) Water, Sanitation & Hygiene Annual report



Sustainable development needs to be driven from two distinctly different starting points. Affluence and over-consumption gives rise to the “green” (earth) agenda. This focuses on reducing the environmental impact of urban-based production, consumption and water-generation. Poverty and underdevelopment gives rise to the “brown” (people) agenda. This highlights the need to reduce the environmental threats to health that arise from the poor sanitary conditions, crowding, inadequate water provision, hazardous air and water pollution, and accumulations of solid waste.

Civil engineers can contribute to both the “green” and “brown” agenda throughout the life cycle of a project. These processes must not only be responsive to sustainable development imperatives but also capable of delivering and maintaining infrastructure more efficiently.