Does water matter in learning?

This post was written by Zaida Mgalla, Manager, Uwezo Tanzania and Dr. James Ciera, Senior Data Analyst, Twaweza East Africa and was originally published on the Pal Network website. 

Every child has the right to be in a school that provides basic services such as clean and safe water and healthy sanitation. More children than ever before are attending primary school in Tanzania as a result of a number of successful policy and government interventions, especially the Fee free education policy renounced in 2015. In 2016 over one million children were enrolled to primary schools. Whilst the number of children enrolled in primary school has increased drastically over this time, the water and sanitation resources required at schools to keep pace with this enrolment have significantly remained inadequate.

Access to safe and clean water, adequate sanitation facilities and good hygiene practices are all important as they contribute to the well- being of children, prevent children from contracting water-borne diseases. The challenges of School Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (SWASH) are more pronounced in developing countries unlike the developed world (Tanzania National Strategy for School WASH, 2012-2017). According to a report by the UN children’s agency and its partners, titled “Raising Clean Hands,” in sixty (60) countries in the developing world, more than half of primary schools have no adequate water facilities and nearly two-thirds lack adequate sanitation (UN, 2004).

Lack of water and basic sanitation in school not only affects children’s physical development but also school attendance and academic performance especially the girls who have reached puberty. Many studies have revealed that girls do not attend school during menstruation if clean and adequate latrines are not available (UNICEF, SNV and Water Aid report 2008). Their absenteeism often leads to poor school performance and high drop-out rates. In sub-Saharan Africa, more than 50 per cent of all girls drop out of primary school because of insufficient access to safe water and inadequate sanitation facilities (UNICEF report 2016).

Availability of adequate water supply of good quality in school reduces time spent in fetching water, increases health standards, and ensures a favourable environment which increases children’s school attendance (Tanzania National Policy 2002).

Uwezo Tanzania Annual Learning assessment findings in 2015 revealed that less than half of public primary schools in Tanzania have access to clean water and nearly two-thirds lack adequate sanitation. Children in Many schools spend reasonable time fetching water than being in the classroom.

  • Only 4 out of 10 schools (38%) in Tanzania access clean water from the tap.
  • Only 3 out of 10 schools access water from the wells.
  • About 1 out of 10 schools access water from the river and spring.

On average School children in Tanzania spend about 17 minutes fetching water at school. Children in rural areas spend more time fetching water at school than their peers in urban schools. In urban setting school children spend about eight minutes fetching water compared with 20 minutes spent by their peers in rural schools.

Access to toilets and other sanitation facilities e.g., hand washing facilities is also limited in many schools. The National WASH guideline (WASH Guideline 2008) which is in line with International WHO guidelines, recommends for the provision of one toilet per 25 girls and one toilet/pit latrine per 20 boys. (WHO, 2006, WASH guideline 2008). In reality, it is not surprising to find hundreds of children sharing one pit latrine, irregular water supply and no hand washing facilities.

The Uwezo assessment report 2015 showed:

  • On average, toilet pupil ratio was 1:52 for boys and 1:50 for girls.
  • Only 42% of all primary schools in Tanzania had hand washing facilities.
  • About 54% of primary schools in urban areas had hand washing facilities compared with only 37% of schools in rural areas.

Access to safe water and sanitation services in schools have a link with children’s learning

Uwezo 2015 assessment report revealed that access to water has close relationship with children performance in school as it is also associated with increased school attendance. Almost 57% of children aged 9-13 from schools that had good access of water passed the Kiswahili reading test compared to 43% of the children from schools with no access to water. (Chi square- P-value = < 0.0001). Similarly, 27% of the children from schools with good access to water passed the English reading tests compared to 16% of their peers from schools with no access to water. Similar findings were revealed in the numeracy test.  About 43% of children from schools with good access to water passed the test compared with only 32% of the children from schools with no access to water. 

Conclusion and Recommendations

Access to water and sanitation services have a strong relationship with learning outcomes. As revealed in Uwezo assessment data from 2015, literacy and numeracy performances of children aged 9-13 are higher in schools with good access to water and sanitation services than in schools with no such services. Many children still spend more time (17 minutes) fetching water in schools and that reduces their time to concentrate on learning at the classroom.

Pupil latrine ratios (PLR) are also high for both girls and boys and are far beyond the national and international standards. Thus, a PLR of 1: 52 for boys and 1:50 for girls respectively.

If everyone is concerned in seeing our children learn and acquire foundational literacy and numeracy competencies the Government should make intentional effort to allocate adequate funds to improve water and sanitation infrastructures and services in primary schools, in order to enhance school attendance and improve learning outcomes. Provision of adequate water and sanitation services in schools should be a matter of priority and not scarcity of resources. Development partners should also support education sector with significant funds to improve school water and sanitation services.

As we celebrate the 2018 World Water Week, policy and decision makers, school administrators, CSOs communities and parents should advocate for government to increase investment for water and sanitation services in schools, making sure that all children go to a school with child-friendly water, sanitation and hygiene facilities.


  1. Mwanaisha Mkumbwa, Le Huong, and Sara House (2008) School WASH in Tanzania, Dares salaam
  2. Ministry of Education and Vocation Training (2012-2017), National Strategy for School WASH (2012-2017), Tanzania
  3. UN report (2004) “Raising Clean Hands,”
  4. Uwezo Tanzania Annual Learning assessment report (2015/2017)
  5. UNICEF report (2016)
  6. Tanzania National Policy 2002
  7. WHO, 2006

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