World Water Day: Did you know 800 million people can’t wash their hands to stop the spread?

We might complain about having to change routines, our social calendars collapsing and over the top panic buying, but in this time of contemplation, we’re reminded by WaterAid that our measures of handwashing – an action so simple to kerb the spread of COVID-19, is still a luxury for millions across the globe that wont be able to.

Handwashing can reduce the incidence of pneumonia by half


Frequent handwashing with soap and water is one of the key components of controlling the spread of infectious diseases, including COVID-19. However, two in five healthcare facilities globally do not have both soap and water available for doctors and nurses to wash their hands at points where care is provided.   This can make disease prevention and delivering safe, quality care much more challenging.

Close to 800 million people do not have access to clean water and a staggering two billion people lack access to a water service that is free from contamination.


Two in five households globally lack handwashing facilities with soap and water. With access to soap, water and good hygiene information, people are better placed to wash their hands and protect themselves and their families against disease, including the current pandemic.

“In the current COVID-19 world, we must focus on handwashing and hygiene practice to keep safe and with World Water Day on Sunday, it is a crucial time for us to be calling for action on the water and hygiene struggles faced by billions of people globally.” said Rosie Wheen, Chief Executive of WaterAid Australia.  WASH (Water and Sanitation Hygiene Programme) is at the core of the work we do here at WaterAid, and we have been calling for urgent action for many years on bringing clean water and hygiene to everyone, everywhere.  Handwashing is one of the simplest and most effective disease prevention methods available, as we have seen from the advice in stopping the spread of COVID-19. It’s been shown to reduce the incidence of pneumonia by up to 50% [12] and acute respiratory infection by up to 23% [12] and can help healthcare centres be better placed to support a response to an outbreak. If everyone, everywhere had a place to wash their hands with soap and water as often as needed it would go a long way towards helping to contain and prevent the spread of many diseases.


Fast facts on handwashing:

  • Only 1 in 5 (19%) people globally wash their hands with soap after using the toilet. [6]
  • 1 in 3 primary schools worldwide does not have handwashing facilities. [7]
  • Around 310,000 children die each year from diarrheal diseases caused by dirty water and poor sanitation. That’s over 800 children each day, or one child every two minutes. [8]
  • 443 million school days are lost every year because of water-related illnesses. [9]
  • Handwashing with soap reduces the risk of diarrheal diseases by up to 47%. [10]
  • Lack of access to sanitation and poor hygiene contribute to approximately 88% of childhood deaths caused by diarrheal diseases.


[1] WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) Progress on drinking water, sanitation and hygiene: 2017 update and SDG Baselines
[2] WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) Progress on drinking water, sanitation and hygiene: 2017 update and SDG Baselines
[3] Prüss-Ustün et al. (2014) and The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (2018)
[4] World Health organization (2012) Global costs and benefits of drinking-water supply and sanitation interventions to reach the MDG target and universal coverage
6 Freeman MC, Stocks ME, Cumming O, Jeandron A, Higgins JPT, Wolf J et al. Hygiene and health: Systematic review of handwashing practices worldwide and update of health effects. Trop Med Int Heal 2014; 19: 906–916.
8. Prüss-Ustün et al. (2014) and The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (2018)
9. Human Development Report, 2006
10. Curtis V, Cairncross S (2003) Effect of washing hands with soap on diarrhoea risk in the community: A systematic review. Lancet Infectious Diseases, vol 3, no 5, pp275-81.
11. Prüss-Üstün A., Bos, R., Gore, F. & Bartram, J. 2008. Safer water, better health: costs, benefits and sustainability of interventions to protect and promote health. World Health Organization.
12. Rabie T, Curtis V. Handwashing and Risk of Respiratory Infections: A Quantitative Systematic Review. Tropical Medicine and International Health. 2006; 11(3): 269-78
13. Luby S, Agboatwalla M, Feikin D, Painter J, Billhimer W, Altaf A, et al. Effect of handwashing on child health: a randomized controlled trial. Lancet. 2005; (366): 225-33
14. Curtis V, Cairncross S. Effect of washing hands with soap on diarrhoea risk in community: a systematic review. Lancet Infect Dis 2003: 3:275-81


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