The value of water – reducing poverty, death, and illness

Author: Professor Guy Howard, Department of Engineering, University of Bristol

Warning: Contains language some may find offensive

What does water mean for you? Do you, like me, relish the prospect of flowing warm water for your morning shower and making coffee? Or perhaps it is the glass of cold water during the day that refreshes you and keeps you alert? Or the water you use every day to prepare and cook the food you enjoy? A central part of all our lives.

For me, water has formed the central plank of my career over the past 30 years. It started during a trip to Uganda in the mid-1980s to visit family working for Voluntary Services Overseas. That trip, which opened my 18-year-old eyes to many things including just how scary it is to walk along a road at night and hear machine gun fire just ahead of you, showed me why simply providing drinking water is so important. In communities throughout the country, I saw the drudgery women and girls faced in collecting water and the reality of young children dying simply because they drank contaminated water.

These experiences led me into working on a rural water project as a young VSO volunteer in Sierra Leone in the early 1990s, and then back in Uganda in the late 1990s, living amid a cholera outbreak, where ‘protected’ springs and poor hygiene in hospitals played major roles in transmission. Later, in Bangladesh, I was confronted by the consequences for poor people when the water they drink is contaminated with arsenic.

The thread that connects all these experiences is poverty. Water expresses what it means to be poor in very stark terms. If you are poor, you are more likely to have to walk and collect water from a water source shared with hundreds of other people. At the moment, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, that means exposing yourself to high levels of risk of disease because social distancing is impossible and because you cannot collect enough water to wash your hands as often as the health advice says. If you are poor but lucky enough to have a connection to a piped water supply, it is likely to be unreliable, expensive, and poor quality. Water also illustrates what it means to be poor in a rich country. There remain (mainly black and first nations) communities in the USA that still lack running water. If you are homeless in the UK, getting enough water to drink and to wash is a daily challenge.

But it doesn’t need to be like this. Access to a water supply is a human right and we have the technologies and systems we know that work. It is true that the world has made much progress in providing water supply, but we need to continue to see its value in reducing burdens on women and girls, preventing children shitting themselves to death, and preventing people dying of cancer because they drink contaminated water. The value of water for me is its ability to help reduce the poverty that millions of people worldwide continue to endure.


Professor Guy Howard is the University of Bristol’s Global Research Chair for Environmental and Infrastructure Resilience, the Associate Director for International at the Cabot Institute for the Environment, and a member of the Bristol Poverty Institute’s Advisory Board.