Water, sanitation, and hygiene, often known under the acronym WASH, is an umbrella category for all of the initiatives that focus on improving people’s access to clean water and sanitation, particularly to the millions of the people in the developing world who lack it. Beyond the increased likelihood of disease contraction, lack of access to clean water and sanitation facilities can lead to other health and development problems: poor overall health, exacerbation of existing conditions such as HIV/AIDS, food insecurity, delayed cognitive and physical development, gender inequity, and under-nutrition. Although most WASH initiatives focus on the developing world, hand-washing is also important in reducing the spread of pneumonia infections and influenza in the United States. Most businesses partner with local NGOs to provide solutions customized to a particular community or region, but some worldwide initiatives include providing:
- Education programs in schools, especially focusing on personal hygiene
- Soap donations, along with education about the importance of hand-washing
- Donations of water filters and other purification methods
Why does business engage this issue?
The problem is dire, and business has resources. Around the world, 780 million people lack access to safe drinking water and 2.5 billion lack access to decent sanitation facilities (a pit latrine or better). Approximately 2 million people die every year due to waterborne diarrheal diseases such as cholera and dysentery, most of them children under the age of 5. According to the World Health Organization, improved water supply is recognized to reduce diarrhea morbidity by 21% and improved sanitation reduces diarrhea morbidity by 37.5% The problem’s scale is immense, but businesses have the resources to empower organizations on the ground to effect tangible change in sanitation conditions, and thereby make drastic improvements in people’s lives.
Water and sanitation are integral to economic stability. Beyond the immediate unpleasant consequences of diarrheal diseases, the lack of access to clean water cripples a community’s economic growth. High rates of disease, time spent collecting water, and stunted growth from under-nutrition all hinder economic development. WASH Advocates estimates that 40 billion working hours are lost every year to water collection, a burden which typically falls upon women and girls. In fact, a 2010 World Bank study found that inadequate sanitation causes India considerable economic losses, equivalent to 6.4% of India’s GDP in 2006. Proper water and sanitation are prerequisites of market development and businesses can use their resources and insight to help overcome these serious impediments to development.