Light shines on millions giving birth without water

WaterAid/ Oliver Dixon

An art installation in London is shining a spotlight on the importance of clean water, sanitation and good hygiene in protecting mothers and babies around the world.

Every two seconds a woman gives birth without access to clean water and safe sanitation, and each year more than 16 million women give birth in hospitals and clinics without adequate water, toilets and soap - putting them and their unborn babies at risk of deadly infection.

These shocking statistics were highlighted during an evocative light installation outside one of Britain’s first maternity hospitals, as part of the charity WaterAid's Water Means Life appeal, which aims to bring clean water to health centres in Mozambique and around the world.

As the January evening closed in, pregnant women stood in silhouetted in front of London’s General Lying-In Hospital in an act of solidarity with the millions of women worldwide who face the injustice of giving birth in unhygienic conditions. More than one million deaths each year are associated with unclean births, while infections account for 26% of neonatal deaths and 11% of maternal mortality.

"Pregnancy and childbirth is already dangerous for many women and babies. Without clean water and the associated health risks, they can be deadly."

Tim Wainwright, chief executive, WaterAid

According to WaterAid, a quarter of health centres around the world do not have clean water on site, almost half are without adequate hand-washing facilities, and four out of five in the poorest countries lack decent toilets. As a result, many expectant mothers have no choice but to collect their own water, carrying dangerously heavy buckets that put them and their babies at risk of falls and other injuries.

In Zomba, Malawi, expectant mother Mary, 31, is painfully aware of the dangers of lack of access to clean water.

“My third born died when he was one year and three months old due to diarrhoea," said Mary. "That time, we did not have a borehole in this village. The water source we were depending on… [was] contaminated.”

Thanks to WaterAid, Mary’s village now has access to a borehole. “I believe if we had this borehole back then, I would not have lost my son," added Mary.

"Everyone is at risk of getting infected because of the lack of water."

Devota Byukusenge, midwife
Midwife, Devota Byukusenge, 28, holds a five hour old baby Ineza at Mwogo Health Centre in Bugesera, Rwanda. WaterAid / James Kiyimba

Despite their best efforts, it is near impossible for healthcare workers in many developing countries to protect their own health and provide safe maternity care without the basics of clean water and soap. In Mwogo Health Centre, Rwanda, 28 year old midwife Devota Byukusenge works in a health centre with no clean water and often sees female patients with diarrhoea, genital infections and skin diseases, which she attributes to the dirty water they collect from swamps to drink, cook and clean with.

“For a midwife with no water in maternity services you can imagine what we go through. Everything is at risk, be it the mother, the newborn; everyone is at risk of getting infected because of the lack of water," said Byukusenge.

WaterAid/ Oliver Dixon

WaterAid’s light installation is a timely reminder of the global health emergency faced by women and babies, and the risks they face from life-threatening infections.

“It is staggering that every two seconds a woman gives birth in a health centre without clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene – that’s a massive 16.6 million each year who are facing this needless threat to their lives," said Tim Wainwright, chief executive for WaterAid.

"Pregnancy and childbirth is already dangerous for many women and babies. Without clean water and the associated health risks, they can be deadly. Our Water Means Life Appeal is raising funds to help turn the tide on this injustice."

While the statistics are shocking, by championing clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene in all health centres around the world we can all play a part in helping to save lives and give women and babies a better chance of a healthy future.

To find out more about the Water Means Life Appeal, and add your support, visit>