Managing Water-Related Health Risks

Improving quality of and access to water, sanitation and hygiene to reduce health risks
The Challenge

785 million people currently lack access to drinking water and 2 billion people to sanitation services that are safely managed (UNICEF & WHO, 2019). Limited household access often translates into unnecessary exposure to chemical and microbial hazards. It additionally poses particular physical risks for women and girls, many of whom suffer daily from pain from water carriage or are vulnerable to sexual harassment and assault when accessing off-plot communal facilities. Poor WASH management additionally can result in broken-down infrastructure and cause unhygienic conditions, resulting in infectious outbreaks of otherwise preventable diseases such as diarrhea, cholera and neglected tropical diseases (NTDs).

The diverse range of WASH-associated health risks suggests a need to tackle this challenge in an interdisciplinary manner. Historically, water, sanitation and health (WASH) interventions focused on providing technologies and handwashing facilities to reduce health risks. Despite global progress, these initiatives have had minimal impact due to the sector’s narrow technological focus and limited understanding of why and how people accessed and used basic WASH services. Interventions that holistically address WASH are needed to reduce water-related health risks.

The Solution

UNU-INWEH’s Water and Health research addresses the environmental determinants associated with water-related health risks. These include, inter alia, biological, physical (natural and built), institutional and socioeconomic environment determinants affecting a range of marginalised and vulnerable populations (e.g. women and girls, migrants, refugees and immunosuppressed groups).

UNU-INWEH Water and Health research interests include synthesising knowledge that:

  1. Enhances our capabilities to address health impacts of microbial and chemical contaminants in drinking water sources, and gauge potential risks from contaminants of emerging concern (CECs) in and anti-microbial resistance (AMR) from treated wastewater; and
  2. Strengthen the policy evidence base for accelerating action on SDGs 3 to 6 (health and well-being; education; gender equality; and clean water and sanitation).