WaterAid: a biography

In 1981, the UK Government’s National Water Council organised the Thirsty Third World Conference to see how the UK water industry should respond to the UN 1981-1991 Decade of Drinking Water and Sanitation. The UK water companies agreed there should be a charity dedicated to helping people in developing countries access safe water, and from this, WaterAid was born.


Our first projects were in Zambia and Sri Lanka. From the outset WaterAid involved communities working with them to find the best solutions for their needs, and volunteer engineering advisors helped them decide on the most appropriate technologies.

Community engagement for sustainability and legacy

Community involvement didn’t stop there – we used simple technologies and ensured that community members were trained in the maintenance and upkeep of facilities, which not only provided knowledge and income, but also helped to ensure the sustainability of our projects.

Organisational growth and develoment

Throughout the 1980s, fundraising committees were formed in many of the UK water companies, increasing donations and allowing WaterAid’s impact to grow. By the end of 1985 WaterAid had funded projects in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Kenya, Bangladesh, Nepal, India and Gambia. By 1987, WaterAid’s income had reached £1 million, and we had helped over 350,000 people.   

In 1991 HRH Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, became WaterAid's first President and visited WaterAid projects in Nepal. He continues to offer his support in this role to this day.

Other successes followed. In 1994 we were awarded the Blue Peter Appeal which raised £1.65 million for our work, and we began a partnership with Glastonbury Festival to become one of their three main charities, giving us access to a whole new group of potential supporters who’d never even heard of us! We are lucky enough to still have this partnership today. 

We extended the number of countries we work in to include Nigeria, Mozambique, Zambia, Madagascar and Malawi and we developed our organisational governance. Country strategies were developed and approved for all overseas work, a hygiene education policy was in place to ensure people gained the maximum health benefits from their water and sanitation projects, and urban water projects were initiated.

Focus on sanitation

By the early 2000s, it had become apparent that sanitation was an increasingly important focus of our work, and sustainable supplies of safe water could not be adequately maintained without improvements in sanitation facilities and good hygiene practices.

It was around this time that WaterAid encountered Richard Sandbrook as one of the co-founders of Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP), a partnership between NGOs, private sector and academics to tackle the global issue of water and sanitation supply in low income countries. WaterAid became a member of WSUP and along with other members helped to forward thinking on tackling the global water and sanitation crisis. 

It was lobbying and campaigning by vital partners such as WSUP that helped lead to water being declared as a human right in 2002, and sanitation being added to the Millennium Development Goals.

WaterAid today

Today WaterAid’s impact is still growing, and we have now helped over 17.5 million people gain access to clean water, and 12.9 million people now have improved sanitation. Thanks to people like Richard, we are able to continue our vital work towards a world where everyone has access to safe water and sanitation.

Useful links

December 2012



About the author

Barbara Frost's picture

London, UK

Barbara Frost has been Chief Executive of WaterAid in the UK since September 2005. During this time the organisation has increased its... (Read more)

Barbara Frost | Timeline for 'WaterAid: a biography'