Photo courtesy of Stuart Franklin/Magnum Photos.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, where more than 300 million people lack access to improved water sources, the search for water exhausts time, resources, and lives (source). According to the United Nations Development Programme, women in Sub-Saharan Africa spend 40 billion hours per year collecting water – equivalent to a year’s worth of labor by the entire workforce in France. On top of that, treating diarrhea alone, just one of many water-related illnesses, consumes 12% of the region’s health budget (source).

The 2009 UN World Water Development Report analyzes returns on investment in safe drinking water and sanitation, as well as the contribution to economic growth. For each $1 invested, WHO estimates returns of $3-$34, depending on the region and technology.

Insufficient water services create inefficiencies in the global economy.

Africa alone sustains estimated losses of $28.4 billion a year due to lack of access to safe water and basic sanitation, or a staggering 5% of total GDP (source).

In contrast, total US foreign aid to Africa in 2010 was only $648 million (source).

Agriculture is the largest consumer of freshwater by far – about 70% of all freshwater withdrawals go to irrigated agriculture (source). And in developing countries, women provide the majority of agricultural labor, yet they often have unequal access to services and other inputs, such as water or fertilizer. If women had equal access, they could increase yields by 20-30 percent, lifting 150 million people out of hunger (source).


Without clean water, communities suffer from poor health, low school attendance, and reduced productive capacities – all of which harm the overall economy. But with access to clean water, communities have the tools to improve their own lives.

Facilitated access to clean water results in improved hygiene and sanitation, which then leads to savings in health care and a healthier, more productive workforce. Improved access also reduces the amount of time spent collecting water, opening up more time for women to pursue an education and earn an income. The installation of a water system the Voss Foundation funded in Pel, Mali, helped irrigate a local women’s association’s garden and doubled their income. A local clean water supply also allows young girls to attend school, instead of staying home to help their mothers fetch water. Additionally, when no sanitation facilities are available, many teenage girls are forced to drop out of school once they hit puberty. According to the World Bank, each year of primary school boosts girls’ eventual wages by 10 to 20 percent.


The World Health Organization reports that investment in clean water per year yields:

  • Health care savings of US $7 billion for health agencies and US $340 million for individuals
  • An extra 272 million school attendance days and 1.5 billion healthy days for children under age 5, together representing productivity gains of US $9.9 billion
  • Time savings resulting from more convenient drinking water and sanitation services totaling 20 billion working days, giving a productivity payback of some US $63 billion
  • Value of deaths averted, based on discounted future earnings (had the individual lived to become a productive member of society), amounting to US $3.6 billion

In addition to saving lives, clean water saves time and money that can help strengthen an economy. Read about our projects to learn more about how clean water is an engine for growth in rural Sub-Saharan communities.