Like the air we breathe, water is crucial for sustaining human life. Yet 2.1 billion people around the world lack consistent access to clean, safe water.

It’s a crisis that exacerbates the world’s most pressing problems, including national security, weak economies, deadly epidemics, and catastrophic climate change. Access to clean water alleviates these problems and lays the foundation for a safer, more prosperous world.

That means that universal access to clean water affects all of us.

Take Action: Pledge Your Support for #WASH4Women

Fostering access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), is the foundation for achieving each of the world’s most important human rights issues — and it affects girls and women most of all.

While water may flow freely from taps in wealthier countries, that isn’t the case for about a quarter of the world’s population. Their WASH deficits affect the rest of the world too because competition for dwindling water supplies can lead to violence, conflict, and, ultimately, displacement.

That displacement will lead to drastic surges in worldwide migration, especially to wealthy regions like North America and Western Europe where the water situation is more secure. In fact, that phenomenon has already begun. Over the past few years, mass migration has rocked the world’s political order and inspired populist movements that embrace dangerous violence, xenophobia, and isolationism.

Read More: A World Water Day Visual Crash Course

WASH access also serves as the world’s most vital women’s rights issue. Thus, it’s a major factor for fostering robust and diverse economies. Girls and women currently play a disproportionate role in providing water for their families. In fact, 80% of water-deprived households depend on women for collecting water, the United Nations reports.

In countries like Cote d’Ivoire and Nepal, the task often requires hours-long journeys by foot. Women fetch the water and lug it back in heavy containers so that their children, siblings, spouses, and parents can stay hydrated.

Image: Rod Waddington/Flickr

All those hours trekking for water take away from time in school, at work, or with family. The water burden also removes a huge portion of the population from the workforce and erodes women’s ability to directly contribute to national economies.

Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of girls and women lack a safe, clean, and private toilet in which to go to the bathroom. It’s more than just an inconvenience: Open-defecation puts girls and women at risk for disease, harassment, and even sexual violence. Providing girls and women with safe toilets can help protect them.

Read More: Blood, Sweat, and Cheers: 2017 Was the Year of the Period Thanks to These Activists

For millennia, various societies have branded periods as unclean — or even toxic — and exploited these taboos to subjugate or isolate women. Millions of girls around the world skip school or drop out all together when they have their periods. Throughout Africa, one in 10 girls miss school when they have their period, according to UNESCO. And in the UK, low-income girls routinely skip class because they cannot afford to buy menstrual hygiene products.

Elsewhere in the world, women risk rape or death inside secluded menstruation huts.

And in wealthy and developing countries alike, women and girls face significant barriers that prevent them from getting clean and safe tampons and pads, and other menstrual hygiene products. Proposed funding cuts by the US only exacerbate the problem.

In addition to the countless humanitarian reasons to ensure women have clean water, toilets, and menstrual health products, universal WASH access serves as a critical component for fostering global security and a strong, inclusive economy. Simply put: when their WASH needs are met, women are able to go to work and go to school.

Universal WASH access also has a massive public health impact, limiting the spread of preventable waterborne illnesses like cholera and various neglected tropical diseases that spread through contact with contaminated feces. In addition to devastating entire families and communities, such illnesses are far less expensive to prevent than to contain and treat.

Thanks to the efforts of governments and activists, open defecation has dropped dramatically in recent years, from 20.5% of the world population practicing open defecation in 2000 to about 12% in 2015. But that means hundreds of millions of women still need safe and sanitary toilets.

Read More: Photos of Cape Town in Crisis As the City’s Water Runs Out

Climate change is the latest threat to worldwide WASH access. While heavy storms damage sanitation systems, severe droughts, like the one affecting South Africa, deplete fresh water sources.

Today, however, Global Citizens can take action and support #WASH4Women. Their efforts will help ensure that girls and women have convenient access to clean water, that schools include menstrual hygiene education in their curricula, and that governments provide pads and tampons to all girls and women.

You can join us by stepping up to tell governments, businesses, and institutions that there has never been a more critical moment to support clean water and sanitation.

Join us in making #WASH4Women a reality. Take action now

Girl drinking water in Rwanda
Image: Jon G/Flickr


Defeat Poverty

Why Clean Water Is So Critical for Women and Girls Everywhere

By David Brand