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Almost a third of the global population (2.4 billion people) lack access to sanitation facilities. Over 660 million people lack access to clean water. One billion people still defecate in the open – a leading cause of diarrhoeal disease.

The UN defines access to safe water and sanitation facilities as basic human rights. Poor water and lack of sanitation have a wide range of negative impacts, for example:

  • they are major causes of infectious diseases.
  • they have knock-on effects on educational attainment, public health and economic productivity.
  • they exacerbate the effects of disease outbreaks such as Ebola and Zika virus.

Research evidence shows hygiene promotion to be one of the most cost-effective ways to improve public health. For these reasons, improving access to water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) has been a key aim of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to achieve universal access to safe water and sanitation by 2030.

There are challenges. More comprehensive data collection will be required to monitor progress towards these targets. Other challenges include engaging communities, financing, and more closely integrating the developmental and humanitarian agendas.

This briefing discusses the challenge of increasing access to water and sanitation in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).


The Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology would like to thank the following interviewees for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing:

  • Professor Sandy Cairncross, Director of Research, SHARE, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine*
  • Harold Lockwood, Aguaconsult*
  • Professor Andrew Cotton, Water, Engineering and Development Centre, Loughborough University
  • Oxfam*
  • The UK Government Department for International Development (DFID)
  • Nathaniel Mason, Overseas Development Institute
  • WaterAid*
  • Dr Alison Parker, Cranfield Water Science Institute, Cranfield University*
  • SeeSaw (Republic of South Africa)
  • Niall Boot, formerly GOAL*
  • Ammar Fawzi, GOAL*
  • Veronica Di Bella, iMC Consultants
  • Tony Rachwal, Surrey Water Innovation Research and Learning, Surrey University*
  • Professor Rosalind Malcolm, Surrey Water Innovation Research and Learning, Surrey University*
  • Dr Steve Pedley, Surrey Water Innovation Research and Learning, Surrey University
  • Dr Johnathan Chenoweth, Surrey Water Innovation Research and Learning, Surrey University
  • Dr Marie-Claire Greening, Surrey Water Innovation Research and Learning, Surrey University
  • Helene Smertnik, GSMA*
  • Gary Campbell, Concern Worldwide*
  • Dr Jennie Dodson, UK Collaborative on Development Sciences

*Denotes interviewees who responded to a request to act as an external reviewer of the briefing

Documents to download

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