Health and Healthcare Systems

Handwashing is saving lives - but for too many people, it remains a luxury 

Too many people still lack access to a reliable source of safe water Image: Jason Jarrach on Unsplash

Patrick Moriarty
Chief Executive Officer, IRC
Eleanor Allen
Lead Executive, B Lab
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Health and Healthcare Systems?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how COVID-19 is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:


  • Despite its prominence today, handwashing is still out of reach for many people.
  • Water and sanitation can act as a firebreak for any infectious diseases to come, as well as for COVID-19.
  • Here are three ways we can all help increase access to this most basic of resources.

Sorry to say, “We told you so.” But, we told you so. While our two water-focused organizations, Water For People and IRC, have been diligently working for a collective 81 years to ensure the world’s most vulnerable communities have reliable access to safe water, it has taken a global pandemic to raise the world’s awareness of the importance of handwashing and access to clean water – basic services that more than 2 billion people in the world still lack.

Indeed, humble handwashing has gone mainstream because it is the first defence against COVID-19. It literally saves lives. But, the simple act of handwashing is unachievable for far too many people. For the more than one-in-three on the planet who lack basic water access, handwashing is not just a lifesaver, it is a privilege.

Have you read?

This was always our fear - that one day, a virus as contagious as this new strain would spread insidiously across the globe. We said: “Communities must have water to protect themselves. Rural health clinics must have the ability to practice proper hygiene in the event of a pandemic. We must work faster and do more!” And we were right. It’s happening. COVID-19 is creeping steadily into Latin America, India and Africa.

When COVID-19 reaches the world’s most vulnerable populations— those without water, let alone those without the luxury of social distancing or working from home – the results could be devastating. The lack of sufficient testing in much of the southern hemisphere belies the true level of infection.

Our organizations are dedicated to improving the quality of life for people in low and middle-income countries through the development of water and sanitation services and hygiene education. This is our everyday work – to ensure people living on less than $2 a day can prepare for, and become resilient to, threats like COVID-19. And it works. Knowing you have access to safe water and a clean toilet changes everything. The way of life for millions of people has improved in thousands of villages and low-income urban areas through the dedication of our global teams. Water and sanitation aren’t rocket science – they are simpler than vaccine development - yet they aren’t sexy enough to attract the necessary funding. Perhaps that will now change with COVID-19.

Water and sanitation face an estimated $114 billion annual funding need over the next decade – and the gap is around $85 billion per year. National governments don’t give enough priority - or sufficient funding - to this work. Funds collected by system users (domestic and industrial) are insufficient to cover the operational costs while continuing to invest in the new infrastructure required to meet Sustainable Development Goal 6 – water and sanitation for all – by 2030. Our voices in the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector are not loud enough to break through the noise and political chatter in the daily news. Instead, we piece together government allocations, user fees, philanthropic donations and aid dollars to reach as many people as we can with improved services. But it isn’t enough. And because it isn’t enough, the quiet, recurring mortality rates never stop. As of writing, more than 350,000 people worldwide have died from COVID-19. We are riveted to the daily reporting and have no way of knowing where these numbers will eventually stop.

But what we do know is that, according to the World Health Organization, 829,000 people die every single year from a lack of safe drinking water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene. Why isn’t this daily headline news?

One-in-three people worldwide lack access to clean water at home
One-in-three people worldwide lack access to clean water at home Image: WHO/UNICEF

Thanks to COVID-19 awareness, many people now realize that disease transmission can be slowed or stopped by having access to water and soap, by doing a good job of washing their hands, and by not touching their faces. These are the basic tenets of hygiene education that we teach around the world every day. Because of COVID-19, our message of making handwashing an important part of everyday life has been amplified. It has become mainstream. Yet in the urgency of mobilizing a global response, with the world fixated on ventilators and personal protective equipment, we still struggle to get across this most basic message: where there is no medical treatment available, a fundamental health response is access to water and sanitation.

Deaths due to inadequate water and sanitation services are almost entirely preventable, and water and sanitation can act as a firebreak to new diseases for which we have no cure. Yet to do so, they need attention and investment.

Here are three ways you can help:

1. Influence your lawmakers to support global health programs for COVID-19. In the United States, this means contacting your representatives and senators to support robust international affairs allocations, especially for water, sanitation and hygiene. We are a member of the Millennium Water Alliance and the alliance advocates Congress on our behalf.

2. Support organizations like Water For People and IRC that are part of Agenda For Change – a coalition of sector partners who are collectively taking action to drive systemic change around sustainable water, sanitation and hygiene services.

3. Spread the word and share the facts about the still far-too-great need for this most basic resource: safe, reliable water!

Hopefully the spike of interest in hygiene and handwashing that came with COVID-19 will help water and sanitation be seen as the fundamental public health interventions that they are. Hopefully proper funding will follow. Hopefully the rising visibility of WASH is a permanent trend and not a blip. And hopefully, finally, the world will wake up and realize that we already have the solution to deliver basic water and sanitation services to everyone on our planet. We can make ourselves more resilient to pandemics. Now we just need the financial commitment to get it done.

So, may our next “We told you so” be one of positive proclamation. When all people across the globe have the humble privilege of washing their hands, let us say, “We told you it was possible. We told you so!”

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

Measles cases are rising – here’s what can be done

Shyam Bishen

July 11, 2024

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Sign in
  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum