UCL News


Easy access to water causes baby boom

14 February 2006

Improving access to clean water can cause unexpected health problems, suggests a study in Ethiopia.

Cutting down a woman's long trek to get water can boost her fertility. But bumping up birth rates worsens childhood malnutrition overall. …

Two UK researchers examined what happened after water taps were plumbed into several rural villages in southern Ethiopia between 1996 and 2000. They gathered information on children's births and deaths before and after the water supply arrived, and compared the data to that collected from settlements without a new tap.

As they expected, the taps slashed the death rate among children by half, at least partly because they cut infectious diseases spread in dirty water. More surprisingly, the pair found that women were, each month, three times more likely to give birth in the years after the tap was introduced. Mhairi Gibson of the University of Bristol and Professor Ruth Mace [UCL Anthropology], both in the UK, report their findings in 'Public Library of Science Medicine'.

The increase in birth rate did not seem to be explained by factors such as changes in the women's age, overall health or prosperity. The researchers suggest that the women's fertility may have soared because they had stopped burning up energy trekking to and from distant water supplies. The women had previously spent up to six hours per day fetching water in extremely heavy clay pots. …

The higher birth rate might help explain why rural Africa's population continues to spiral upwards despite slowly improving living and health conditions. … It contrasts with the rapid drop in birth rates seen in developed countries as economic conditions improve and family planning becomes more widely used.

Helen Pearson, 'Nature', 14 February 2006