Water is the basic required commodity for survival; no population can endure without it. When disaster disrupts normal supply systems and water is unavailable, even for short periods, a population’s health equilibrium is rapidly threatened. Without water to drink, cook with, clean up with or carry out daily needs, all other needs become secondary.

Because access to water is critical, humanitarian relief efforts must begin with immediate action to locate and establish water sources sufficient for the population at risk. In rapid order, solutions to the problems of water storage, water distribution and water quality control and treatment must be implemented. According to the standards put forward by the Sphere Project, each person should have access to 15 liters of water per day, there should be at least one water distribution point for every 250 people, the maximum distance to a water point should not exceed 500 meters, and there should not be a waiting time of over 15 minutes to obtain water.

These standards are quite reasonable, yet in many emergency situations may seem to be virtually unattainable. Arid locations, remote access issues, the chaos of war or the immediate aftermath of natural disaster and more conspire to confound the work of water and sanitation workers. Recognizing the vital urgency of getting these issues right, the Global Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Cluster (WASH) group, operating under the auspices of the UN OCHA Humanitarian Reform Support Unit, has organized a strong framework for developing capacity in this sector.

Global WASH provides an open formal platform for all emergency WASH actors and working together, the has promoted the development of a workplan which addresses the key gaps as identified by key stakeholders, and provides a venue for verification from the field. The cluster approach presents many opportunities to bring the sector as a whole closer together in ensuring a predictable, effective, timely and coherent WASH humanitarian response. For more information check the Global WASH website at:



Video: ICRC – Water and sanitation: a partnership for change

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The Johns Hopkins Public Health Guide to Emergencies
Chapter 8 – Water, Sanitation and Hygiene in Emergencies

This chapter of the Johns Hopkins Public Health Guide to Emergencies discusses the importance of improving water, sanitation, vector control and hygiene in emergency settings. Topics that are covered include: water-born diseases, assessment checklists, excreta and solid waste management, and hygiene and food safety.

University of Hawaii at Manoa; Center of Excellence in DMHA; ICRC

Contact Information

Disaster Management & Humanitarian Assistance
University of Hawai'i at Manoa
2424 Maile Way, Saunders Hall 118
Honolulu, HI 96822