Estimating the changing burden of disease attributable to unsafe water and lack of sanitation and hygiene in South Africa for 2000, 2006 and 2012

S Afr Med J. 2022 Sep 30;112(8b):729-736. doi: 10.7196/SAMJ.2022.v112i8b.16498.


Background: The incidence of diarrhoeal disease is closely linked to socioeconomic and environmental factors, household practices and access to health services. South African (SA) district health information and national survey data report wide variation in the incidence and prevalence of diarrhoeal episodes in children under 5 years of age. These differentials indicate potential for reducing the disease burden through improvements in provision of water and sanitation services and changes in hygiene behaviour.

Objectives: To estimate the burden of disease attributed to unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) by province, sex and age group for SA in 2000, 2006 and 2012.

Methods: Comparative risk assessment methodology was used to estimate the disease burden attributable to an exposure by comparing the observed risk factor distribution with a theoretical lowest possible population distribution. The study adapts the original World Health Organization scenario-based approach for estimating diarrhoeal disease burden from unsafe WASH, by assigning different standards of household water and sanitation-specific geographical classification to capture SA living conditions in rural, urban and informal settlements.

Results: SA experienced an improvement in water and sanitation supply in eight of the nine provinces between 2001 and 2011, with the exception of Northern Cape Province. In 2011, 41% of South Africans lived with poor water and sanitation conditions; however, wide provincial inequalities exist. In 2012, it was estimated that 84.1% of all deaths due to diarrhoeal disease were attributable to unsafe WASH; this equates to 13 757 deaths (95% uncertainty interval (UI) 13 015 - 14 300). Of these diarrhoeal disease deaths, 48.2% occurred in children under 5 years of age, accounting for 13.9% of all deaths in this age group (95% UI 13.1 - 14.4). Between 2000 and 2012, the proportion of deaths attributable to diarrhoea reduced from 3.6% to 2.6%. Gauteng and Western Cape provinces experienced much lower WASHattributable death rates than the more rural, poorer provinces.

Conclusion: Unsafe WASH remains an important risk factor for disease in SA, especially in children. High priority needs to be given to the provision of safe and sustainable sanitation and water facilities and promoting safe hygiene behaviours. The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the critical importance of clean water for preventing and containing disease.

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19*
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cost of Illness
  • Diarrhea / epidemiology
  • Diarrhea / etiology
  • Humans
  • Hygiene
  • Pandemics
  • Sanitation*
  • South Africa / epidemiology
  • Water


  • Water