Why is clean water important?

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Oxfam built a water desalination system powered by wind and solar energy on the west coast of Yemen to help families get clean water. Pablo Tosco / Oxfam Intermon

Safe water, sanitation, and hygiene save lives during emergencies and in the long-term struggle against poverty.

When a sustained drought in southern Ethiopia in 2017 killed all of Amina Ibrahim’s sheep, goats, and camels, it was an economic crisis for her family. Then the lack of safe drinking water became an even bigger threat. People in her village started drinking whatever water they could find, got sick (most likely from cholera, but Ibrahim could not say for sure), and started dying.

“I thought I would die also,” the 50-year-old mother of 12 said later. She and her family fled to a nearby town where Oxfam and the Ethiopian government provided clean water, decent latrines, and cash-for-work projects so she could buy some food.

Like Ibrahim, more than 2 billion people in the world lack a source of safe water at home, and as many as 4.5 billion don’t have a safe sanitation system either, according to the UN. It’s a crisis during emergencies, especially the current COVID-19 pandemic. But the long-term effects of unequal access to clean water and decent sanitation in people’s day-to-day lives are also a major contributor to poverty. That’s why the UN highlights World Water Day each year, and why water, sanitation, and hygiene are priorities for Oxfam’s work--which supporters like you make possible.

Clean water saves lives

Any conflict or emergency that drives people from their homes and forces them to gather in places with no safe drinking water or sanitation systems creates conditions that are ripe for water-borne diseases.

Cholera is one of the most severe diseases: When about a million Rwandans fled violence to eastern Congo in 1994, there were as many as 60,000 (some estimate 80,000) cases of cholera. Within about a month, more than 40,000 people died. In Yemen, more than six years of conflict has so severely damaged water systems that the country has endured a multi-year cholera epidemic that has killed thousands.

Oxfam helps reduce the threat of diseases in emergencies by providing clean water. With partners, we treat local water sources, or bring water to areas hosting refugees and displaced people by truck, store it in tanks and bladders, and set up pipes and taps to dispense it. We dig and repair wells, and train people to maintain them, so that after the emergency passes communities have a safe source of water.

Oxfam works with engineers to repair municipal water systems damaged in conflicts and earthquakes. After bombings in the Gaza Strip damaged water desalination plants in 2020, for example, Oxfam provided the chemicals needed to get them up and running. We also build systems to purify water where needed.

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After air strikes damaged municipal water systems in northern Gaza in May 2021, Oxfam helped rebuild the sanitation system in Beit Lahia. Hosam Salem/Oxfam

Promoting good hygiene is also essential, especially during a pandemic. Oxfam partners train community leaders to encourage handwashing at critical moments. We provide hygiene kits with soap, water purification tablets, and other necessities that help people displaced by emergencies keep clean and avoid cholera outbreaks and COVID-19.

Safe sanitation is also crucial. Oxfam helps install latrines where people need them and ensures they are sited appropriately for women to access safely (installing solar lights if needed). Oxfam helped build about 8,000 latrines in the months following the 2015 earthquake in Nepal. After more than 800,000 Rohingya people fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh in 2017, Oxfam worked with the UN and people seeking refuge in camps to build a massive sewage treatment plant that processes waste from 150,000 people.

Clean water fights poverty

The lack of clean water kills people every day, and water-borne diseases and parasites are a significant hardship . Children under 5 are the most vulnerable. Diarrheal diseases are among the most common causes of mortality for children under 5, and can be easily prevented with clean water, decent sanitation, basic hygiene, and nutritious food.

A convenient source of water can also be a major improvement in the lives of women and girls, who are frequently tasked with carrying water home many times per day. Many girls and young women are deprived an education, just to carry water. This relegates them to an early marriage and limits their prospects of employment.

By helping communities improve their access to clean water and basic sanitation, and promoting good hygiene, Oxfam and the many organizations we partner with make an important contribution to fighting inequality, eliminating at least some of the time women have to spend carrying water, reducing health care costs, and improving the educational prospects of their daughters.

Water for livestock and growing food

Water is becoming more and more scarce in some parts of the world due to climate change. For example, in Central America’s Dry Corridor, an arid zone cutting across five countries, farmers are struggling to grow enough food to survive. In 2019, Oxfam provided cash and food aid to communities in Guatemala’s southern Chiquimula region at a time when farmers had not seen any consistent rain for four years.

Lucas Aldana used the cash to plant corn and beans, and says “I bought a hose to improve my mini-irrigation system so that the plants … don’t dry up.”

Oxfam has helped communities around the world with irrigation systems for farmers, water reservoirs to support livestock herders, and training to help communities manage their watersheds and forests to reduce erosion, improve soil quality, and replenish ground water.

You can help provide clean water, sanitation, and basic hygiene tools for people in emergencies and fight poverty in more than 90 countries.

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Yemen

The people of Yemen are coping with years of conflict, an economic and public health crisis, and the threat of hunger and cholera.

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