A theoretical model is proposed that relates the level of ingestion of diarrhoea-causing pathogens to the frequency of diarrhoea in the community. The implications of this model are that, in poor communities with inadequate water supply and excreta disposal, reducing the level of enteric pathogen ingestion by a given amount will have a greater impact on diarrhoea mortality rates than on morbidity rates, a greater impact on the incidence rate of severe diarrhoea than on that of mild diarrhoea, and a greater impact on diarrhoea caused by pathogens having high infectious doses than on diarrhoea caused by pathogens of a low infectious dose. The impact of water supply and sanitation on diarrhoea, related infections, nutritional status, and mortality is analysed by reviewing 67 studies from 28 countries. The median reductions in diarrhoea morbidity rates are 22% from all studies and 27% from a few better-designed studies. All studies of the impact on total mortality rates show a median reduction of 21%, while the few better-designed studies give a median reduction of 30%. Improvements in water quality have less of an impact than improvements in water availability or excreta disposal.