Water, Sanitation & Hygiene (WASH)

Water, Sanitation & Hygiene (WASH)

Weak infrastructure, inadequate human resources, and scarce financial resources are the primary challenges in making sanitation everyone’s business. Lack of access to safe water, basic sanitation and poor hygiene practices are a major cause of disease and death among many of the world’s poor.  Each year more than 200 million people are affected by droughts, floods, tropical storms, earthquakes, forest fires and other hazards. In the aftermath of these events, sanitation is often a critical need. In emergency settings, people often leave their homes in search of safer surroundings. In many instances, the water, sanitation and hygiene conditions of new surroundings might not be adequate. In other instances, people might be left in their home surroundings but with destroyed or damaged societal and physical infrastructure including water, sanitation and health care systems.

[Source: Water, sanitation and hygiene in emergencies, The Johns Hopkins and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies]

Community Organization

Governments and communities can manage disaster risk in WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) by:

  • Designing, building and maintaining water and sanitation systems which include simple modifications to withstand the risks of disasters.
  • Carrying out vulnerability assessments of community supplies of water and sanitation systems to assess ability to provide essential services in the event of a disaster.
  • Engaging and consulting the community in planning WASH services to identify culturally and socially acceptable interventions which will be effective, long lasting and sustainable.
  • Ensuring a multi-sectoral approach in all aspects of disaster risk management for WASH, including disaster response planning.
  • Providing an adequate quantity of safe water and accessible sanitation services during a disaster helps to manage cases of contamination.
  • Preventing infection spread through education, facilities and soap for hand washing to promote hygienic practices.
  • Referring to SPHERE (2011) on the minimum standards during disaster response for individuals, camps and health facilities.
  • Ensuring shelters and temporary camps have access to safe water and sanitation.
  • Ensuring health facilities and health care providers have adequate water supplies to support delivery of life-saving health care services in emergency situations.
  • Disinfection and treatment of water as per SPHERE or WHO recommendations.
  • Preventing defecation, especially by children, in areas which could contaminate water supplies.
  • Providing safe disposal of clinical waste and vaccination to waste handlers against prevalent infections such as Hepatitis B.

[Source: Disaster Risk Management for Health – Water, Sanitation and Hygiene, WHO]


There are 7 billion people on the planet today and by 2050, we will have welcomed another 2 billion. Currently an estimated 2.5 billion do not have access to basic sanitation, and 1.1 billion of those people still practice open defecation. This is not only ‘an affront to human dignity’, but also a serious public health issue as faecal–oral transmitted diseases such as diarrhoea, cause at least 1.5 million deaths per year in children under 5.

Furthermore, at the onset of an emergency, the aim is to protect life and health through rapid assistance that focuses on the following most crucial aspects of environmental health:

  • Provide facilities for people to excrete safely and hygienically;
  • Protect water supplies from contamination;
  • Provide enough safe water for drinking, cooking and essential personal and domestic hygiene;
  • Ensure that people have enough water containers to collect and store water cleanly;
  • Ensure that people have the knowledge and understanding they need to avoid disease;
  • Ensure that people have soap for washing their hands.

As early as possible in the emergency, it is critical to:

  • Consult with the disaster-affected population to get a good understanding of their needs;
  • Identify key community leaders who can help organise the community’s involvement in water, sanitation and hygiene projects;
  • Begin planning for and start implementing longer-term interventions in consultation and cooperation with the community.

[Sources: Water, sanitation and hygiene in emergencies, The Johns Hopkins and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent SocietiesGetting the balance right A Red Cross Red Crescent call to address the imbalance between sanitation and water, IFRC 2012]

Hygiene behaviour is the wide range of actions associated with the prevention of water and sanitation-related diseases. Hygiene behaviour involves five areas of health, also known as the five hygiene domains.

Hygiene promotion is a planned approach to preventing diarrhoeal diseases through the widespread adoption of safe hygiene practices. It begins with, and is built on, what local people know, do and want.

Hygiene promotion is more specific and more targeted than health promotion. It focuses on the reduction and ultimately the elimination of diseases and deaths that originate from poor hygiene conditions and practices. For example, good hygiene conditions and practices are enhanced when people can consume water that is safe, use sufficient amounts of water for personal and domestic cleanliness, and dispose of their solid and liquid wastes safely. However, a person may have good hygiene behaviour, but not be healthy for other reasons. Good or bad health is influenced by many factors, such as the environment (physical, social and economic).

Hygiene promotion refers to the combination of, and linkages or relationship between the hygiene domains and the improved facilities. Without one, the other cannot succeed.

Hygiene behaviour change is the action of replacing current unsafe hygiene practices with improved behaviour.

[Source: The International Federation software tools for long-term water and sanitation programming, IFRC 2007]