A $41 million initiative to provide safe drinking water to hundreds of thousands of people in West Africa is being launched by a group of private U.S. charitable organizations and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The new multi-million dollar effort will accelerate current efforts to bring safe water to people in West Africa.

"Working together, new sources of water will be found, hundreds of water wells will be drilled, thousands of latrines built and extensive health and sanitation education provided for the people of Ghana, Mali and Niger, reaching more than one-half million people," said Steven Hilton, president of the Los Angeles-based Conrad Hilton Foundation, one of the private charities taking part in the initiative. "We believe this type of collaborative partnership is an effective way to address many of the challenges confronting the developing world."

Millions of people in West Africa suffer from easily-prevented water-related diseases, which lead to serious illnesses, blindness and death.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates more than five million people in developing countries, most of them children, die each year from disease associated with a lack of access to clean drinking water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene. In an effort to reduce this suffering, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has teamed up with the private charitable organizations.

Bruce Wilkinson, who has worked in West Africa for 15 years with World Vision, a Christian humanitarian group, says providing clean water will have a dramatic and positive impact on the people of the region.

"This will save lives," he said. "You do the math. Take 500,000 people who will be impacted, take the infant mortality rates that exist of 33 percent, one-third in Niger, 25 percent in Mali, and around ten percent in Ghana and you do the math with 500,000 people, how many lives will be saved. How many children's lives will be saved over time. This is truly a life saving intervention. This will actually have an impact on people's lives."

Andrew Natsios, the Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, says a reliable water supply is a basic need for people trying to break out of the cycle of poverty and death.

"Water is a valuable commodity in many countries, particularly arid countries," he said. "It, in fact, is life or death. So there is great economic potential for livelihood generation among poor people if we can match limited water resources with people in rural areas and urban areas."

The charitable organizations behind the West Africa water initiative will present their plan next week at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg where access to clean water has been identified as one of the major issues to be discussed.