The Fundamental Question About Water

04/20/2015 01:21 pm ET | Updated Jun 20, 2015

"What can we do without water?" In Nthalire, a remote, dusty village in Malawi, a school teacher asks the obvious question in a classroom with too many empty desks. People are remarkably resilient in less-than-ideal circumstances, but it is a resiliency focused on getting by rather than reaching one's full potential. The question points to a more fundamental question: "What can we do without health?"

Diarrhea, caused in large part by a lack of safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene (collectively known as WASH), is the second leading killer disease in children less than five years old. When it doesn't kill, repeated bouts of diarrhea drain not just fluids but also nutrients, diminishing the ability to grow and learn and develop in a healthy way.

Still, as sobering as these facts are, more children are surviving today than ever before, and it's one of development's great success stories. Since 1990, we have cut the number of global child deaths in half, a feat which inspires the world's most famous impatient optimist, Bill Gates, to assert that we can cut that number in half again over the next 15 years.

Where we've been -- and where we could potentially go -- is thanks in large part to investment in WASH solutions. WASH continues to be one of the most practical ways we can fulfill our commitment to the world's children. If everyone had access to safe drinking water, a staggering 90 percent of diarrhea deaths could be prevented.

Research indicates that programs are most successful when they invest in holistic approaches that integrate prevention solutions, like WASH, with treatment solutions for child health. The inextricable link between WASH and child health is easily understood, but too easily forgotten in the design of funding streams and on-the-ground programs. Thankfully, trends in recent years show that the tide is turning. In 2013, UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) launched the Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Pneumonia and Diarrhea, setting a global standard for integrated efforts that include WASH as a key component and providing an ideal roadmap as experts convene to shape the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

"What can we do without water?" If anything should guide the development of the SDGs, it is this practical question that arose from a school teacher, shrugging with open palms. Her simple question should remind us that treatment without prevention will never result in thriving communities; that child health outcomes do not hinge upon one "shiny" thing but rather a collection of seemingly mundane things, like a cup of clean water, a hand-washing station, a toilet; that resourcefulness in the absence of one of life's most basic needs will only take you so far.

Conversations about the best ways to answer her question by integrating WASH and child health should continue. Because diarrheal disease -- and child health more broadly -- are multifaceted issues, many voices deserve a seat at the table. At PATH's DefeatDD initiative, we aim to host a comprehensive and creative conversation, convening different advocacy communities to talk about integrated solutions. Will you add your voice?

This blog post is part of the "WASH and the MDGs: The Ripple Effect" blog series, in partnership with WASH Advocates, addressing the importance of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) to global development. To see all the other posts in the series, click here. To learn more about WASH, visit the WASH Advocates website, and for more information about the Millennium Development Goals, click here.