The Links Between WASH, Poverty and Health

TACOMA, Washington — Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) play a vital role in the well-being of a person, yet 829,000 people die every year from diseases caused by unsafe water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene.

Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Issues Globally

More astounding is the fact that 2.2 billion people live without safe access to drinking water and nearly double the number of people lack safely managed sanitation services. On top of that, approximately 297,000 children under the age of 5 die each year from diarrhoeal diseases caused by poor WASH conditions. Children suffer not only due to the lack of WASH facilities at home but at school as well. Globally, one in three schools lacks a safe water supply, which leads to an increased likelihood of children dropping out.

To combat these numbers, researchers are looking into certain initiatives and how they have benefited, or perhaps not benefited, the communities they serve in.

Interview: Jennifer Orgill Meyer

The Borgen Project spoke with Jennifer Orgill Meyer, an assistant professor of government and public health at Franklin & Marshall College. Outside of her professorship, Meyer has conducted research in India, Jordan and Cambodia relating to areas of environmental economics and policy.

A study of her’s found that improved sanitation led to increased long-term cognitive test scores. Over the course of 10 years, the study looked at 40 villages from the Bhadrak district in India where they implemented a community-led total sanitation intervention to promote better hygiene and decrease open defecation.

At the time of the study in 2012, 77% of rural India practiced open defecation leading to sanitation issues across the villages. A key point of this study was the improvement of childhood health and cognitive performance that branched from the increase in better hygiene practices.

The Importance of WASH Facilities

In Meyer’s research, she stresses the importance of cumulative health starting from birth. Children who face malnutrition and the lack of safe WASH facilities are already at a disadvantage in comparison to healthy children.

“If you don’t have health, you cannot have any of the rest of it,” Meyer told The Borgen Project. “I think the literature shows that that is the first key thing that you need to overcome poverty — you need to overcome early childhood health. You have to have that first step, or otherwise, you are just in a poverty trap.”

Water in Jordan

Another intervention that Meyer worked to implement and research took place in the water-poor country of Jordan. Here, the project revolved around the problem of leaking pipes in Jordan’s water infrastructure.

People in Jordan were only receiving 24 hours of water service per week, which prompted them to spend money on water tankers and seek out water in other places to stabilize their water supply. By fixing the infrastructure, reliability on piped water increased and so did household savings.

“When we evaluated the intervention we found that there is a really large economic return to households,” Meyer said. “We saw household savings shoot up dramatically after we were able to get the water reliability in sync. I think all of these interventions have really large economic benefits for the people that are receiving them.”

Meyer feels as though cost-benefits are pertinent to improving the programs in place that combat global health and poverty crises. By analyzing what communities need and the most effective solution, multiple problems could be addressed. In the future, climate change will only exacerbate these issues and lessen economic development, fostering an environment for poverty to increase.

Evidence-Based Policy

For that reason, Meyer believes that the best way to approach U.S. foreign aid is through the development of evidence-based policy. U.S. foreign aid currently addresses many issues in many fields and it would be more efficient to decide where to invest based on evidence.

“I think if we try to spread our money thin across everything nothing really happens but if you can spend money deeply in certain key areas like sanitation, that has long-term impacts,” Meyer told The Borgen Project. “Then, that produces a really big return, and when I say return, I mean that it improves the most people’s lives in the biggest way.”

Intersection Between Gender roles and Health

Recently, Meyer’s research has focused on global environmental health issues relating to water and sanitation. More specifically, she has been exploring the intersection between gender and environmental health issues.

For instance, during fieldwork in India, she looked at the connection between the household role of women and the air pollution of wood fire stoves. She was surprised to find that when cooking began throughout the villages, the sky was coated thick with smoke. The government has tried to mitigate this concern by offering LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) stoves that produce zero emissions for free but yet people continue to use the air polluting stove.

What researchers later found was that because of gender roles within the households, women lacked the financial power to make such decisions even though environmental health-related issues directly affected their well-being.

Future Research

Going forward, Meyer hopes to further research this connection between gender, health and the environment. At the same time, she seeks to look at both the short-term and long-term benefits of water and sanitation initiatives to further analyze their effectiveness on a larger scale. Eventually, as more data becomes available she would like to study the impact of COVID-19 on areas with poor water and sanitation conditions.

WASH, Poverty and Health

In 2017, roughly 785 million were without basic drinking water and 673 million people practiced open defecation. The studies in India and Jordan exemplify how current research continues to expose the intersection between poverty and health. With more WASH initiatives in developing countries globally, both health and poverty can be addressed at once.

– Adrianna Tomasello
Photo: Flickr


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