Clean water is essential to health care around the globe

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When four British hospitals shut down for all but emergency care due to a major waterline burst, bedpans, bottled water and hand gel were handed out and patients were asked to not flush toilets. It was a crisis that made international headlines as health-care workers scrambled to provide care. Yet for the doctors, nurses and midwives struggling to provide care inside tens of thousands of health-care facilities around the world, having no water and sanitation is just a routine day.

When the University of North Carolina Water Institute reviewed recent data from more than 129,000 health-care facilities in 78 low- to middle- income countries, its researchers found an appalling 66 percent of health-care facilities in low and middle-income countries lacking running water and soap; not surprising, sanitation also desperately lags with a third of health-care facilities without basic sanitation.

{mosads}As we lead up to Mother’s Day, consider how this routine absence of water, sanitation and hygiene [WASH] in health-care facilities is particularly treacherous for mothers and newborns. Back in Manchester, one mother whose three-day-old daughter was in neonatal intensive care, told reporters, “We can’t sterilise anything … I can’t even boil water to sterilise my equipment to express milk.”


Around the world, the first day of life is when more than 40 percent of maternal and newborn deaths and stillbirths occur. Sepsis claims the lives of one million newborns and up to 100,000 women during and after pregnancy every year, according to the World Health Organization, WHO. Even though it is an easily prevented infection resulting from poor hygiene, sepsis is largely overlooked as a chief cause of maternal and newborn deaths and complications. 

Perhaps it is no coincidence that just before Mother’s Day, May 5 is shared by World Hand Hygiene Day and International Day of the Midwife. All these “days” offer an opportunity to amplify this fundamental gap in global health care. I hope the absence of WASH in health-care facilities may finally be breaking through the global silence. 

On World Water Day (March 22), UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, made an unprecedented announcement, followed by an endorsement from World Health Organization Director General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Citing the UNC data, Secretary Guterres said, “Today, I am using the launch of the Water Action Decade to make a global call to action for water, sanitation and hygiene in all health care facilities…We must work to prevent the spread of disease. Improved water, sanitation and hygiene in health facilities is critical to this effort.” His office is to follow with a large initiative. WHO’s Director General quickly joined in, “We can’t expect #HealthForAll without these essentials. We support the global call to action for water, sanitation and hygiene in ALL health care facilities.”

These are welcome words; until now, like water, leadership has been missing. But this issue is not a single sector problem and it does not have a single sector solution. The U.S. government, multi-laterals, NGOs, private sector, donors and local governments need to plan and finance policies and programs that prioritize and maintain sustainable WASH in all health care settings. 

In the U.S., we have an opportunity to further elevate the federal government’s significant, recent focus on the importance of water. The U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID, released the first ever U.S. Global Water Strategy, which coordinates 17 U.S. government agencies, and private partners, around global water security. As USAID goes through a redesign proposed by Administrator Mark Green, it is essential to keep the priority for clean water and sanitation for their obvious tie to health, nutrition, economic opportunity, empowering women and so much more.

Let us not forget that disease and pandemics know no borders; prevention is the key. In the next decade, 48 countries are predicted to face water shortages according to the United Nations. The effort to shore up health-care facilities is wise and urgent. Absent this prioritization, conditions are going to further decline — with even more broken pumps and dry faucets, dirty hands and medical staff struggling daily to prevent the spread of illness and disease in facilities meant to cure. 

William Reilly was administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under President George H. W. Bush. He is chairman emeritus and former president of World Wildlife Fund; co-chair of the Global Water Challenge; and established a fund to invest in water in developing countries.

Tags Healthcare Universal Health Coverage Day Water Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council William Reilly

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