Water Safety and Sanitation in Central America

According to the World Health Organization and UNICEF, as of 2012, in Latin America and the Caribbean, 36 million people didn't have access to an improved drinking water source and 110 million people didn't have access to an improved sanitation facility.

Unsafe drinking water and poor water sanitation can lead to infectious diseases, including diarrheal diseases. Diarrheal diseases are a major public health concern and cause 1 of every 9 child deaths worldwide, being the second leading cause of death for children under five years of age. In 2010, approximately 12,000 children under the age of five died due to diarrhea in Latin America and the Caribbean.

What are Improved and Unimproved Sanitation Facilities and Drinking Water Sources?

Improved sanitation facilities are those that inhibit human contact with feces. Improved drinking water sources should provide access to safe water.

When improved water sources are damaged or improperly constructed, they can become contaminated and therefore provide unsafe water. The WHO and UNICEF provide examples of improved and unimproved drinking water sources and sanitation facilities:

Improved Drinking Water Sources Unimproved Drinking Water Sources
Piped water connection Unprotected dug well
Public tap or standpipe Unprotected spring
Borehole Surface water
Protected dug well Vendor-provided water
Protected spring Bottled water*
Rainwater collection Tanker truck water

*Bottled water, although typically safe, is not reliably accessible and is therefore considered an unimproved drinking water source.

Improved Sanitation Facilities Unimproved Sanitation Facilities
Pour-flush toilet or latrine Pit latrine without a slab or platform
Ventilated improved pit latrine Hanging latrine
Pit latrine with slab Bucket latrine
Composting toilet Open defecation

By combining water sanitation and proper hand-washing, many water sanitation-related diseases can be prevented, saving thousands of lives each year. The most effective way to decrease an infant's risk of consuming contaminated water and contracting a diarrheal disease is exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life.

Improving Water Sanitation Practices in Central America

  • Sanitation Education: Community members often lack knowledge on water sanitation practices and systems. Educating people in the community about behaviors that can lead to water contamination and consumption, such as human or animal defecation near a water source or consuming water that hasn't been filtered and purified, might be necessary.
  • Emphasizing the Benefits of Breast Milk for Infants: In some areas of Central America, caregivers feed infants milk other than breast milk, such as cow or goat milk and provide infants with other liquids such as formula, juice, tea, coffee and sugar water that may have been prepared with unsafe water. Health educators should communicate the WHO's recommendation of exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months and continued breastfeeding with the proper introduction of safe complementary foods and beverages up to age two or beyond to enhance infant growth and development and to reduce the risk of contracting diarrhea and other waterborne illnesses.

"Safe Water System" Initiative

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Pan American Health Organization developed the Safe Water System, an initiative which includes simple approaches to developing safe community water. The SWS includes three steps:

  1. Household water treatment
  2. Safe storage of treated water
  3. Education to improve hygiene, sanitation and water and food handling practices

The SWS website includes detailed information on household water treatment and safe water storage methods as well as tips on starting an SWS project in a community.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology websites provide free, downloadable water treatment and sanitation education materials.

Additional Resources



Population Reference Bureau

  • Fricas J, Martz T. The Impact of Climate Change on Water, Sanitation, and Diarrheal Disease in Latin America and the Caribbean. Population Reference Bureau. 2007. Accessed April 3, 2016.

Water and Sanitation Program.