Water and sanitation in an urbanizing world

Children in northern Sri Lanka enjoy water from a new tube well installed by Habitat.


By Susana Rojas Williams, Habitat for Humanity International director of international shelter initiatives

Today, we mark World Water Day in recognition of the role that access to WASH — water, sanitation and hygiene — plays in the lives of the many families that Habitat for Humanity serves. Habitat recognizes that a holistic approach to adequate housing requires safe and reliable access to water and sanitation.


For the first time in history, more than half the world’s people live in cities — and about 1.2 billion of them live in slums. By 2030, the United Nations forecasts that this number will increase to 2 billion. In addition, the World Health Organization reports more than 783 million people worldwide live without access to safe drinking water and 2.5 billion people have no access to sanitation.

This water facility in Moramanga, Madagascar, is one of six built by Habitat.

The unprecedented growth of cities, and particularly of slums and informal areas, exacerbates the problem of adequate access to safe water and sanitation. That lack of access significantly worsens health and environmental conditions, especially in areas with high concentrations of people — and the most impacted are children.

Each year, 700,000 children — roughly 2,000 per day — die from preventable diarrheal diseases because they do not have access to clean water. Ninety percent are younger than age 5. Children living in homes with no toilet are twice as likely to get diarrhea as those with a toilet.

To improve health outcomes and reduce poverty around the world, WASH improvements are among the most cost-effective housing investments that can be made. Due to improved health and increased productivity, WASH investments can bring economic benefits ranging from $5 to $46 per each dollar invested and can significantly contribute to economic development at the neighborhood and city levels.

Habitat supports a wide range of WASH projects in partnership with communities, governments, the private sector and partner organizations. We have been able to make inroads in many urban areas, where shared and communal facilities have been installed and are now maintained and managed by neighborhood committees. A few examples:

  • In the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, Habitat reached close to 10,000 people in 2013 with WASH improvements. We’ve engaged community groups to build communal toilet facilities and install shared water points and provided hygiene education to reduce the incidence of diarrheal diseases.
  • In Toliara, Madagascar, Habitat has built community infrastructure for 13,340 slum dwellers, in partnership with local government, neighborhood councils and other development partners. To date, this infrastructure includes 80 water points, 11 garbage collection points, 11 public laundry points, 4,580 meters (15,062 feet) of paved pathways and drainage and 30 public latrines. Habitat has helped create neighborhood committees to manage and maintain these public facilities.
  • In Haiti, skills training, small business development and community contracting of infrastructure projects has not only supported health-related improvements in the Simon Pele neighborhood of Port au Prince, but also has helped create livelihood opportunities for residents.

While much has been done, the challenges and needs remain high. This World Water Day, Habitat renews our commitment to reduce the number of people who lack access to safe water and sanitation and to work with families and communities toward healthier homes, healthier and safer environments and more prosperous opportunities for all.

Learn more and find out how you can help today!