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What are the Most Common Sanitation Problems?

By Amy Hunter
Updated May 17, 2024
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Around the world, sanitation problems are the cause of many types of disease and death. The World Health Organization reports that problems associated with sanitation result in four percent of all deaths, and nearly six percent of all illnesses worldwide. Sanitation problems are particularly difficult for people with impaired immunity, the elderly, and the very young. Understanding sanitation problems is an important step in eliminating them.

The discharge of untreated waste into water systems is one of the most common sanitation problems. This creates multiple issues, such as polluting drinking water, creating a breeding ground for insects that spread disease, and exposing bathers to infectious disease. Contaminating the water sources also has an indirect affect on health by exposing foods, such as vegetables and fish, to the pathogens present in contaminated water. Not only does this contaminate the food supply, but it also reduces the amount of food available.

Contaminated wells are another sanitation problem. In areas that rely on hand dug wells, the typically shallow depth of the wells often allows for contamination from the groundwater. Overcrowded living conditions and the improper disposal of waste result in contaminated groundwater.

Along with lack of water for drinking and cleaning, a lack of toilets is a huge sanitation problem. Without running water there is no way to have a proper toilet, however even hand dug latrines and composting latrines can eliminate some of the problems associated with lack of toilets. With no toilets available, people have no choice but to defecate in the open. Not only does this create unpleasant living conditions, but also, in areas with a high population density, it contaminates the groundwater.

Water scarcity is another sanitation problem. When there is not much water available, it makes it difficult for people to wash their clothes, bodies, and even their hands. This lack of basic hygiene leads to the spread of disease as well as creating living conditions that make it difficult for the people in the area to maintain their dignity.

The World Health Organization reports that 2.4 billion people do not have access to basic levels of sanitation and the proper disposal of waste. This creates a problem for people that live in the area, as well as for animals and plants. The buildup of human waste negatively affects the environmental balance in the area and is difficult to resolve.

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Discussion Comments

By discographer — On Apr 19, 2011

I read that around 40% of the world doesn't have access to sanitation. When we hear about development or wealth, the first things we think about is food, jobs, education and health care. But sanitation is extremely important too and it is a human right in my view.

I think what shocked me the most in this article is the lack of toilets in many countries. I imagine that it is most common in rural areas and also areas where there is lack of roads and transportation. I can't even imagine the discomfort that women face when they are traveling and need to use the toilet. I think that this should be the number one focus of governments and international organizations.

By burcidi — On Apr 17, 2011

I think a very common problem is when sewage water mixes with drinking water.

I don't think it always happens because the authorities didn't do their job right. Sometimes it is just because the pipes are too close together underground, so when one or both is damaged, it's easy for them to mix.

Another reason I can think of is in the case of a natural disasters like earthquakes. Then, not only buildings, but also pipes are damaged and that causes water contamination too.

I learned about this from my dad who works as an emergency aid worker. He says that if there is any concern about the water, we should boil it first and then drink or use it.

By candyquilt — On Apr 15, 2011

I wonder if these sanitation problems are because of a lack of understanding and education or the lack of services. I had seen a documentary where villagers had only one source of fresh water, a river. This river was used for everything- to drink, to bathe, to wash clothes, to clean animals and even to send the cremated (and sometimes not so cremated) corpses of their loved ones on their final journey.

You can imagine that the villagers were plagued with a whole range of health problems because of these terribly unsanitary conditions. And somehow this seemed absolutely normal and acceptable to them. I just don't understand how this can be.

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