5 Public Health Implications of Inadequate Water Infrastructure in Developing Countries


In much of the developed world, clean water is often taken for granted. Access to vast resources has allowed richer economies to create such water-intensive extravagances like golf courses and water parks in desert climates. However, many developing countries face many significant challenges in simply ensuring that their citizens have access to clean water. Chief among these challenges is the prohibitive expense of providing adequate water infrastructure.

Unfortunately, inadequate water infrastructure is a pervasive issue in many developing countries. The chronic lack of proper water distribution and sanitation systems can further impede the progress of struggling economies by not only hindering business growth but also creating serious public health hazards. In this article, we’ll look into several public health issues faced by countries with poor water infrastructure.

1) Waterborne Diseases

In many developing countries, drinking water is often transported through open channels, which can easily become contaminated with fecal matter from livestock as well as pollutants from agricultural and industrial runoff. Additionally, existing modern water networks are often poorly maintained due to the lack of resources, which often leads to contamination.

This lack of proper water infrastructure inevitably exposes people to waterborne diseases. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), diarrheal diseases alone account for about 1.5 million deaths each year, with the majority occurring in developing countries where access to clean water is limited. 

Fortunately, waterborne illnesses are steadily dropping year after year as more water infrastructure is developed globally. In newly-minted middle-income countries like the Philippines, deaths from diarrheal illnesses have dropped to their lowest point in history, thanks to increasing water sector investments by the government and its private sector partners like Aboitiz InfraCapital. However, even these countries are still vulnerable to the spread of waterborne diseases, as natural calamities, climate change, and an ongoing lack of water security can still occasionally lead to serious outbreaks.

2) Malnutrition

Most cases of waterborne illness are not deadly. However, whenever they are present, they can lead to serious long-term health problems. Most people in developing countries already have inadequate access to nutrition, and the ongoing prevalence of waterborne diseases in many regions further exacerbates this issue. When individuals become ill from a waterborne disease, they become prone to nutrient loss and malnutrition as their bodies become unable to effectively process food.

Children are especially vulnerable, as persistent illness can result in stunted growth, developmental delays, and long-term negative effects on their well-being. When multiple generations are afflicted with waterborne illnesses, entire communities can miss out on numerous life opportunities due to the collective healthcare burden caused by malnutrition.

3) Reduced Food Security

Inadequate access to clean water sources can also impact food security, potentially intensifying malnutrition and its associated societal and economic burdens. Reasonably clean water is essential for agricultural productivity, and the lack of suitable water sources can reduce crop yields, disrupt normal agricultural activity, and increase food prices. 

When this happens in a developed country, it may be a minor inconvenience for most of the population. However, when it happens in a developing country, the effects can be devastating. The low availability of clean water can reduce the diversity and overall nutritional value of readily available produce, impacting the health of people in economically depressed areas.

Again, it’s younger children who tend to bear the brunt of food insecurity. With a lower diversity of foodstuffs, poorer families are likely to consume more grains and other carbohydrates and fewer vegetables, and less meat. Over time, poorer children may experience stunted growth and development because of suboptimal diets, hampering their ability to do well in school or secure high-value employment later in life.

4) Women’s Reproductive Health Issues

Inadequate water infrastructure can have a disproportionate impact on women and girls. In many developing countries, it is the responsibility of women to collect water for their households, with many young girls taking on this responsibility as soon as they can walk and carry heavy loads. 

Inadequate or nonexistent water infrastructure means that these individuals must travel long distances to fetch water, which can expose them to violence and increase their risk of injury. Additionally, the time spent collecting water may impede their knowledge and ability to attend school . This may affect how they practice sanitation, and it may harm their health as well as that of other people in their household.

Tragically, the burden of collecting water also has a negative impact on women’s reproductive health in developing countries. A lack of bathrooms and clean water may force women to use unsanitary water sources during menstruation and childbirth, dramatically increasing the risk of infection. As such, access to clean water should also be viewed as an issue that directly affects women in less-developed parts of the world.

5) Long-Term Economic Impacts

The cumulative effects of waterborne illnesses, poor women’s reproductive health, food insecurity, and malnutrition can take a serious toll on a country’s economic output. Without access to clean water and sanitation, communities in developing countries can face serious challenges in developing anything but the most basic of industries. 

Additionally, many of the challenges caused by water insecurity can also impact how many children finish school, directly affecting the ability of a developing nation to develop its human resources and reach middle-income status. This ultimately affects the entire nation’s quality of life as well as the type of healthcare most people can expect over the long term.

Inadequate water infrastructure can negatively impact a country’s health outcomes in several ways. Unfortunately, many developing nations face especially difficult challenges in improving their water infrastructure due to a scarcity of resources. However, for most developing countries, added investment in water infrastructure systems is almost certainly a good thing as it will invariably improve public health outcomes as well as create long-term economic benefits. If they can overcome the initial hurdles and provide wider access to clean water and sanitation, most developing countries can ensure their population a healthier and more prosperous future.

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