04/30/2013 03:05 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

When What You Don't Know Can Kill You

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Diarrhea. It's ugly, it's messy and we don't like to talk about it. But diarrheal disease kills thousands of children in the world's poorest countries each day, and it's time we start asking why? Or perhaps more to the point: it's time to start asking why, when we know the problem and we have the solution, so many people struggling under the weight of poverty continue to die from preventable causes.

It may seem hard to imagine, but one out of every three people in the world today does not have access to a decent toilet. Instead, many people in poor countries are left with no choice but to relieve themselves in open spaces, rivers or fields that drain into de facto local water sources.

Everyone knows that dirty water is a problem. But what people often don't know is that they are spreading germs that cause diarrheal disease, the second leading cause of death for children between one month and five years old -- every time they go. Simply put, what they don't know is killing them.

You might have heard my colleague Lisa Schechtman talking about these challenges when the first-ever Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Pneumonia and Diarrhea was released by the World Health Organization and UNICEF a few weeks ago. If you did, you heard her say that the good news is that we have the solution and that our increasingly coordinated dedication to tackling these problems in smart, locally-specific ways is beginning to show some impressive results.

Part of what is making a difference is the fact that UN leaders, international organizations, civil society, private companies and non-profit organizations like mine are coming together and prioritizing the need to make sustainable clean water sources, toilets and hygiene education available to everyone. World Bank President, Jim Yong King, is right: this is a critical intervention, and the return on investment is high, especially for the poor.

This is why I was especially heartened to see a full house at last week's World Bank event on investing in sanitation, and why I am proud of the new partnerships that WaterAid has announced in recent weeks with both American Standard and The Coca-Cola Africa Foundation. As the World Bank's increased commitment to the financing of sanitation demonstrates, there is power in businesses working alongside local leaders in poor communities to break taboos and give people the tools and knowledge that they need to be able to take control of their own health and well-being, and give themselves the dignity that they deserve.

At WaterAid, we are big believers in the idea that knowledge is power. We are also big believers in the power of partnerships. For more than 30 years, we have been partnering with poor communities to ensure that we are meeting their needs and supporting the development of services that use local know-how, inputs and leadership.

This month, we are proud to announce that we are also teaming up with American Standard, one of the largest producers of toilets and bathroom fixtures, on the Flush for Good Campaign. Thanks to this campaign, and American Standard's commitment to clean, affordable sanitation options, we expect to be able to reach more than 100,000 families in Bangladesh with SaTo™ sanitary toilet pans donated through the partnership.

Likewise, I am uniquely proud of our work with The Coca-Cola Africa Foundation, another new partnership that is boosting our ability to help make clean water a reality for the poorest of the poor in both Burkina Faso and Ethiopia by extending existing water pipes, creating new water points, reservoirs and solid waste management facilities and supporting educational programs on safe hygiene practices.

These are simple solutions to what is, in the end, a relatively simple problem. Clean water + toilets + good hygiene = diarrheal disease prevented, lives saved and lasting improvements in the health, well-being and dignity of families living in poor communities. Together, we're making the most of what we know -- and we know that water-related diseases can be beat.