Water and Sanitation in Humanitarian Emergencies

Maggie Brown, MS, ELS is Senior Production Editor at PLoS

In a humanitarian crisis a population’s needs are great and many–for medical attention, shelter, safe water and adequate sanitation, food, and security. Disasters that occur in places that are already resource-poor and underserviced are more devastating than they might otherwise be.  The catastrophic January 12 earthquake in Haiti is currently in the spotlight, but other disasters, such as the 2008 earthquake in China, Hurricane Katrina and the northern Pakistan earthquake in 2005, and the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 also remain clear in recent memory. Armed conflict–ongoing in Somalia, Afghanistan, and Democratic Republic of Congo among other places–is another cause of immediate injury and loss of life and results in misery, illness, and mortality due to displacement of refugees to areas that are often ill-equipped to provide basic services (see http://www.icrc.org/web/eng/siteeng0.nsf/html/p1014).

When large numbers of people are internally displaced, water and sanitation become immediate and urgent issues (see http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/emergencies/en/). As a given displacement persists, clean water and adequate sanitation become ever more important in the control of disease transmission. The list of possible epidemic diseases that can occur in concert with natural disasters and conflict situations is long, but the among the commonest are infectious causes of diarrhea, leptospirosis, hepatitis, intestinal helminths, meningitis, and trachoma (http://www.bt.cdc.gov/disasters/disease/infectious.asp).

WHO recommendations for water and sanitation in a humanitarian emergency include :

  • At least 15-20 liters of water daily per person for drinking, washing, and food hygiene.
  • Latrines or, at least, designated defecation areas. These areas should preferably be segregated by sex and attention paid to possible security issues in their use.
  • Promotion of adequate hygiene, such as hand washing after toileting or changing babies and before food preparation and eating.

In Haiti the situation is evolving quickly, and prospects for a communicable disease outbreak are serious but still unclear. Blogs and internet news sources, as well as WHO, are monitoring the situation.

Other SoM entries on water and sanitation:

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