Waterborne disease facts and how to help

Updated Jun 18, 2020
Water is a lifesaver, but it can also be a major threat to human life when it’s contaminated. Latest figures reveal that 1 in 3 people in the world do not have access to safe drinking water. As a result, more than 3.4 million people die from waterborne diseases. Putting it into perspective, it’s estimated that 801,000 children younger than 5 years of age, mostly in developing countries, die from diarrhea every year.

Three Afghan children fetch water from a faucet in their village.
Children fetch water from the water network established by World Vision Afghanistan in their village. Photo: Abdul Qauom Abdullahi

What is a waterborne disease?
Waterborne diseases are usually caused when a person drinks, bathes in, washes with or prepares food with water that has been contaminated by bacteria, viruses or parasites, usually from human or animal waste.
 
Types of waterborne diseases include diarrhea, dysentery and cholera.
 
Diarrhea, though common and easy to treat in sanitary living conditions, can be deadly without medical care and clean water since the rapid loss of fluids can lead to severe dehydration. Generally, if blood is passed, the illness is not diarrhea but dysentery.
 
Cholera is a more severe infection. Symptoms include profuse diarrhea and vomiting, sunken eyes, wrinkled hands and the skin turning a bluish-grey hue. Cholera progresses very quickly, within one to five days of infection, and if left untreated, can lead to death.
 
Why are waterborne diseases dangerous?
Waterborne diseases are dangerous in any condition, but during a disaster—like floods—there are several main concerns:
 
  1. Contaminated drinking water: When disaster strikes, sanitation and clean water are often the first measures of infrastructure to suffer. Clean water is essential for preventing deadly waterborne illnesses, such as cholera and dysentery but it is often in short supply once water sources are contaminated.
  2. Lack of medication: The combination of lack of clean water and poor access to medication could prove deadly, especially when added to poor living conditions and lack of food for flood-displaced people.
  3. Outbreaks of malaria: In addition to waterborne illnesses, standing water also acts as a breeding ground for mosquitoes, increasing the risk of malaria.
  4. Child health: With unsafe water, there is serious concern for children, especially those under the age of three. They tend to spend more time playing in areas with high risk of contamination. Their small body size makes them more susceptible to diarrhea-related dehydration (which can be deadly). Since many kids in the developing world suffer from malnutrition, their immune systems are weaker and less able to fight off infections.


Several people walk barefoot on a flooded terrain in a Rohingya refugee camp.
As monsoon rains hit Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, refugees are at potential risks of landslides, water-borne diseases such as diarrhea and cholera. Photo: Md. Mojibur Rahman Rana​

Help make water safe 
Safe water is crucial for children and their families to thrive. Learn more about what World Vision is doing to provide clean water to the most vulnerable communities around the world. You can also help our efforts by making a donation