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  • Writer's pictureLindsay Denny

Public health, water, sanitation and hygiene - connecting systems for greater impact

Want to learn more about CONNECT Health? Thursday 16 March we hosted a webinar about connecting WASH and health systems, ahead of the All Systems Connect International Symposium. Watch the recording here.

Safe water and sanitation services help to interrupt the fecal-oral cycle, thereby preventing the spread of diarrheal diseases like cholera and typhoid. Meanwhile proper hand hygiene limits the transmission of pathogens and is one of the most cost-effective methods of disease prevention we have at our fingertips. This relationship has been known since at least the 1800s, during the time of John Snow and the Broad Street Pump, though it can be argued even farther back in some cultures.

Olive Kabasinguzi Nursing Assistant from Bwanika Health Centre II, Uganda.

If we think of public health like a toolbox, then access to safe water and sanitation, along with the practice of good hygiene, are public health tools which can be leveraged to achieve the goal of good health and wellbeing for all. Other tools in this toolbox include vaccinations and proper nutrition.

But nowadays, despite the inherent interrelatedness of water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) and public health, there is a lack of connection between the two in the development space. Multiple arguments can be made for why this has come about, no doubt in part because of a difference in expertise. Whatever the reason, it is clear that achieving good health and wellbeing as set out by Sustainable Development Goal 3 will require WASH.

How can we connect health and water, sanitation and hygiene systems?

It will take concerted efforts on both sides to bring ourselves closer together. To do this, it may be valuable to see where we could benefit from greater collaboration, as we look out to the pressing issues that will impact public health – from pandemics to climate threats.

Based on interviews with leading health and WASH practitioners, IRC identified three key entry points with the health sector that could benefit from greater engagement with WASH:

  1. Robust health systems: WASH is a pre-requisite for high-quality health service provision, ensuring safe, dignified, efficient, effective, and people-centered care.

  2. Disease prevention: WASH is critical to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, and thus an important tool when faced with public health emergencies.

  3. Climate resilient health systems: Climate change will impact WASH services, which in turn will impact health outcomes. Climate resilience cannot be considered an afterthought in efforts to bring together the WASH and global health sectors.

These WASH and health efforts cannot simply be standalone programs – they must support a system strengthening approach to ensure that we achieve lasting change. This means that not only is WASH considered a critical intervention within the healthcare facility, but it is also integrated into the health governance, financing, and accountability structures in place.

Consultation hall of a health center in Banfora, Burkina Faso.


All Systems Connect International Symposium 2023 – will you be there?

In May (2-4th), IRC, an international think tank that actively builds strong water, sanitation and hygiene systems and Water for People, a global nonprofit, and their partners, will host the All Systems Connect International Symposium 2023. The Symposium is designed to help people working in health, WASH, climate and social justice to connect with purpose, work on collective solutions, and strengthen their capabilities as systems leaders. Partners include: the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, Sanitation and Water for All, the Government of the Netherlands, Osprey Foundation, World Vision, Agenda for Change, Aguaconsult, Deltares and Water Wiser. 

Speakers include: Dr Githinji Gitahi, Group CEO, AMREF Health Africa; Dr Mary E Ashinyo, Quality Lead and Deputy Director, Institutional Care Directorate, Ghana Health Service; Henk Ovink, Special Envoy for International Water Affairs, Government of the Netherlands; Kitty van der Heijden, Director-General International Cooperation, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Netherlands; Mariana Mazzucato (PhD) Professor in the Economics of Innovation and Public Value at University College London, Co-Chair of the Global Commission on the Economics of Water; Shomy Hasan Chowdhury, Co-Founder, Awareness 360 and many other prominent figures who are leading change globally and locally. 

We encourage you to join us, to connect with new allies, fresh thinking, and inspiring ways to strengthen systems and services.

Find out more


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