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Clean water and good nutrition: why you can’t address one without the other

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There are many aspects that can affect people’s ability to access better nutrition – clean water and sanitation may not be immediately obvious to some, but it is incredibly vital. For some, accessing clean water is not a consideration they will have to make on a daily basis. However, for 2.2 billion people, this is still very much their reality. The UN World Water Day was created to highlight the importance of clean freshwater whilst drawing attention to the staggering amount of people across the world who still do not have access to it. It is also vitally important to recognise the intrinsic link between clean water and good nutrition; addressing one without the other can lead to a vicious and perpetuating cycle of poor health and malnutrition.

The immediate and perhaps obvious problem with not having clean water readily available is the increased likelihood of drinking water filled with germs and parasites that can lead to a variety of illnesses and diseases. This is a very real and dangerous problem; however, this can mark just the beginning of many other equally dangerous outcomes. Without clean water, getting good nutrition becomes increasingly difficult, leading to a vicious cycle that can only be solved when both problems are addressed effectively.

The most prevalent illness caused by the consumption or indirect consumption (i.e. during food preparation) of dirty water is diarrhoea. Diarrhoea is particularly dangerous for children and a leading cause of child deaths under five globally. Frequent bouts of diarrhoea can majorly affect a child’s ability to absorb vital nutrients, meaning that even if they were receiving good nutrition, they would not receive the benefits. The likelihood of children suffering from malnutrition therefore is drastically heightened if they do not have access to clean water.

The actual consumption of dirty or contaminated water is not the only consideration that needs to be addressed. Often families living in remote areas will have to travel far, often on foot, to access a clean water supply. These are often the same families that do not have access to nutritious food, making the laborious journey more dangerous to those who do not have the calories to burn. Equally the cost of water is often too high for some families and communities.

Our goal at The Power of Nutrition is to work with partners to give children easier access to better nutrition, to help them not just survive, but thrive. When developing our programmes, determining the barriers for better nutritional outcomes is key. Several of our programmes have addressed access to clean water as a major barrier and include interventions to help prevent this.

Learning assistant Nzamwita Jean Claude helps a child wash their hands.
Learning assistant Nzamwita Jean Claude helps a child wash their hands.

What we are doing in our programmes

Our programme in Rwanda is one example of where water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) interventions are in place to complement the nutrition interventions. We support local early childhood development centres to teach children about the importance of handwashing with soap. This includes providing the centres with sanitary latrines, handwashing stations with soap, household water treatment and safe water storage. Helping foster these behaviours early helps build positive habits the children take forward into education and then adulthood.

Another example of how we combine nutrition with water and sanitation is our two programmes with Unilever – in two states in India and in Indonesia. These programmes combine a range of partners from different areas of expertise to address intersectional issues relating to nutrition, water and hygiene. The programmes use Unilever’s brand and marketing expertise to inform behavioural change campaigns that lead to better water and hygiene practises, especially amongst families with children.

Looking forward

These interventions are just a few that are possible when integrating access to clean water and nutrition together. However, more needs to be done. Still over 700 children under-five a day are dying from diarrhoeal diseases, nearly half the global population do not have access to safe sanitation and more than 149 million children are ‘stunted’ due to malnutrition.

Work needs to be done in partnership to address access to nutrition, clean water and safe sanitation, to bring about lasting positive change for millions of children globally. If you would like to be part of the solution - to take these proven interventions to scale, contact us at

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