Developing Tools to Reduce the Risks of WASH-related Diseases and Water Pollution



Lack of safe water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) is an urgent public health issue: approximately 1.6 million people – which is 2.8% of all global deaths – could be saved annually if everyone had access to safe WASH. Of particular concern is that over half of these mortalities are attributed to diarrheal disease, which remained a top ten cause of death in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) in the pre-Covid era. At present, 1 in 4 people lack access to safely managed drinking water, 1 in 2 people lack access to safely managed sanitation services and 3 out of 10 do not have the means to wash their hands. If access to WASH was universal, an estimated US$260 billion would be saved annually, with WASH investments additionally producing an estimated return of US$5 for every dollar spent.

Polluted water from naturally occurring chemicals such as arsenic, industrial waste, and infectious pathogens moreover can result in chronic health impacts – ranging, inter alia, from acute poisoning, immune system suppression, disability, and mortality. Microbial pollutants from sewage is particularly a problem in the Global South; limited wastewater treatment facilitates the transmission of water-related diseases such as typhoid, cholera, and diarrhea. Drug-resistant microorganisms have also been detected in drinking water worldwide in part due to wastewater contamination. An estimated 700,000 people die annually due to anti-microbial resistance (AMR), which is expected to increase to 10 million a year, result in an annual global gross domestic product loss of up to 100 trillion USD by 2050 and render progress against diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria ineffective if the spread of drug-resistant microorganisms are not tackled.

This project contributes evidence to guide policymaking on water’s critical role in abating environmental health risks of preventable diseases. It does so by synthesizing knowledge and developing tools to reduce the negative impacts of WASH-related diseases and water pollution, especially amongst marginalized and vulnerable populations. The Project’s objectives are to:

  • Improve health outcomes, especially for women and girls, by developing tools that reduce the environmental health risk of poor WASH and polluted water;
  • Enhance institutional capabilities to address the health impacts of poor WASH and microbial and chemical water contaminants, especially contaminants of emerging concern (CECs); and
  • Strengthen the policy evidence base for accelerating action on SDGs related to health and well-being; gender equality; clean water and sanitation and climate action.

Tools in development draw from the latest in climate, behavior, and health sciences to reflect environmental health contexts and inform spatial planning and infrastructural investment. This includes a new cholera-focused disease risk tool that can measure, map, and inform mitigation and adaptation of WASH and health interventions. The project runs till the end of 2023 and has a global focus, with collaborations taking place in select countries in Africa and Asia. All works build on previous UNU-INWEH research implemented from 2010-2021 on managing water-related health risks and developing water-related disease vulnerability risk assessment tools.

Photo by Logan Abassi/UN Photo
Photo by Vladimir Smakhtin, UNU-INWEH
Photo by Hervé Lévite


United Nations University – International Institute of Global Health (UNU-IIGH)
United Nations University –Institute of Natural Resources in Africa (UNU-INRA)
Canada: McMaster University, University of Waterloo, University of Toronto
South Africa: Future Water Institute – University of Cape Town
The Netherlands: IHE Delft (formerly UNESCO-IHE)
Uganda: University of Makerere
Nigeria: University of Ibadan

Example Outputs of Water and Health Research

Research publications 

Policy Briefs:




Dr. Lina Taing

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