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 10% of global disease burden could be prevented by improving WASH services. At present, 3 out of 10 people use contaminated drinking water, 3 out of 5 access unsafe sanitation services and 2 out of 5 do not have the means to wash their hands. Limited WASH access in low- and middle-income countries translates to an estimated loss of 1.6 million lives and 105 million disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) annually. 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 suppression, disability and mortality. Microbial pollutants from sewage is particularly a problem in the Global South, with waterborne diseases such as typhoid fever, cholera and diarrheal diseases being a primary cause of infant mortality. Drug-resistant microorganisms have also been detected in drinking water worldwide due to contamination from municipal wastewater. 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 contaminants in drinking water sources, as well as gauge potential risks from contaminants of emerging concern (CECs) in both surface and wastewater; 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. Tools and manuals have also been developed and tested by users (e.g. Leave No One Behind (LNOB) WASH manual).

The project runs till the end of 2022 and has a global focus, with collaborations taking place in select countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. All works build on previous UNU-INWEH research implemented from 2010-2020 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 High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)
United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)
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
Colombia: Universidad de la Costa
South Africa: Future Water Institute- University of Cape Town
The Netherlands: IHE Delft (formerly UNESCO-IHE)
Uganda: University of Makerere

Example Outputs of Water and Health Research

Research publications

Policy Briefs:




Dr. Lina Taing