Environmental degradation has been associated with increased burden of diseases such as malaria, diarrhea, and malnutrition. As a result, some have argued that continuing ecosystem change could undermine successes in global health investments. Here we conduct an empirical study to investigate this concern. Child deaths due to diarrhea have more than halved since the year 2000, partly due to increased access to improved water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). We examine how the effectiveness of a water quality treatment may vary as a function of upstream watershed condition. We use data on occurrence of diarrhea and point-of-use water treatment methods from the Demographic and Health Surveys for Haiti and Honduras. We integrate these data with a variable that reflects the influence of upstream tree cover on surface water quality. Point-of-use chlorination is significantly associated with 3.4 percentage points reduction in prevalence of diarrheal disease on average. However, we only detect a significant reduction in diarrheal prevalence when upstream watersheds are moderately forested. At low upstream tree coverage, point-of-use water chlorination does not have significant effects, suggesting that forest clearing could undermine its effectiveness at reducing childhood diarrhea. Our results suggest that forested watersheds may reduce water-borne sediments and contaminants, and thus improve raw water quality in ways that moderate the effectiveness of water quality treatment. Watershed protection should be considered in WASH investments, as deforested watersheds could undermine their effectiveness, particularly in parts of low-income countries where access to improved WASH services is challenging.
Read the full article in Environmental Research Letters.