The Need for Good Water and Sanitation In Disaster Response

Everyone has the right to clean water...

This right is recognized in international law and provides for sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic use. An adequate amount of safe water is necessary to prevent death from dehydration, to reduce the risk of water-related disease, to provide for cooking, and personal and domestic hygiene.

Children drinking clean water

The right to water is inextricably related to other human rights...

This includes the right to health, the right to housing and the right to adequate food. As such, it is part of the guarantees essential for human survival. Without safe water, the success of other disaster response and recovery initiatives (such as medical care and education) are likely to be severely hindered.

Water and sanitation are crucial in the aftermath of a disaster...

People affected by disasters are generally much more susceptible to illness and death from disease, which to a large extent are related to inadequate water supplies, inadequate sanitation, and the inability to maintain good hygiene.

"Diarrhea is a leading cause of death during complex emergencies and natural disasters. Displacement of populations into temporary, overcrowded shelters is often associated with polluted water sources, inadequate sanitation, poor hygiene practices, contaminated food and malnutrition – all of which affect the spread and severity of diarrhea." - Diarrhea: Why children are still dying and what can be done

During an emergency, water and sanitation services are especially important for the following activities:

  • Medical attention for victims. In hospitals and health centers, the continuity of a safe water supply is essential to providing medical care to the victims of a disaster. Even when a health facility has taken protective measures for the impact of a disaster, the quality of care it can provide will be limited if the public services of water and sewerage are interrupted.
  • Search and rescue activities. The search and rescue teams need water not only for their own consumption, but sufficient quantities for the consumption and hygiene of the people they rescue.
  • Human consumption (drink and hygiene). The services must ensure that there is safe and sufficient water for human consumption and personal hygiene, particularly for persons directly affected by the disaster.
  • Attention to populations in shelters. Especially for victims who have lost their homes and are in overcrowded shelters, the provision of enough safe water for consumption and adequate sanitation facilities are fundamental for safeguarding their health.
  • Fire fighting during earthquakes. Fires that occur after earthquakes can not be extinguished without a reliable water source.
  • Cleaning. Essential facilities such as hospitals and schools need to be cleaned before routine activities can resume, for which water is essential. Water is needed to clean houses and public spaces in general if they are to be fit for use.
  • Well-being. The interruption of services has adverse effects on well-being, quality of life, and development of affected populations as well as those who are not directly affected. As mentioned earlier, lack of accessible water forces the population (especially women and children) to carry water. Many industries require continuous supplies of water to operate and produce goods and services.

Phases of outbreak of infectious disease...

Infectious disease transmission or outbreaks (particularly those related to water-borne diseases) may be seen days, weeks or even months after the onset of the disaster. Three phases of natural disasters summarize the chronological public health effects on injured people and survivors:

  • The impact phase (lasting up to to 4 days) is usually the period when victims are extricated and initial treatment of disaster-related injuries is provided.
  • The post-impact phase (4 days to 4 weeks) is the period when the first waves of infectious diseases (air-borne, food-borne, and/or water-borne infections) might emerge.
  • The recovery phase (after 4 weeks) is the period when symptoms of victims who have contracted infections with long incubation periods or those with latent-type infections may become clinically apparent. During this period, infectious diseases that are already endemic in the area, as well as newly imported ones among the affected community, may grow into an epidemic.

It is common for the international community, NGOs, volunteers, experts and the media to leave a disaster-affected zone within three months, when in reality basic sanitation facilities and access to basic hygiene may still be unavailable or worsen due to the economic burden of the disasters.

Adequate supplies of water per person for drinking, bathing, washing and for excreta disposal, as well as management of solid wastes, are essential in preventing outbreaks of diarrheal diseases and other vector-borne diseases.

The most documented and commonly occurring diseases are water-borne diseases (diarrheal diseases and Leptospirosis). Diarrheal diseases cause over 40 percent of the deaths in disaster and refugee camp settings. Epidemics among victims are commonly related to polluted water sources (fecal contamination), or contamination of water during transportation and storage. Outbreaks have also been related to shared water containers and cooking pots, scarcity of soap and contaminated food, as well as pre-existing poor sanitary infrastructures, water supply and sewerage systems.

It is therefore essential that disaster victims have rapid access to adequate supplies of water of sufficient quality to prevent death, dehydration, problems related to poor hygiene, and other health issues. For example, in a natural disaster such as severe flooding, it is likely that traditional ground-water supplies (such as wells) will be rendered useless. People may be forced to relocate to "safer" areas that lack sufficient clean water supplies and where bottled water cannot be easily delivered. In such cases, potable water can be provided to disaster victims by taking whatever fresh-water is available and making it fit to drink by a process of filtration.

The AidGear Oasis-3 water filtration system is more than able to meet this challenge, especially when you consider the cost of providing bottled water to disaster victims.

According to the SPHERE Project, disaster victims need an average of 15 litres of water per person per day (l/p/d) for drinking, cooking, and personal hygiene.

Water Need Daily Need (litres) Depends on...
Essential survival (drinking and cooking) 2.5 - 3 Climate and individual physiology
Basic hygiene practices 2 - 6 Social and cultural norms
Basic cooking needs 3 - 6 Food type and social and cultural norms
Total basic water needs 7.5 - 15  

The water supply should maintain a minimum standard...

  1. The source of the supply must first be assessed to mitigate against a public health risk. This means that the water supply, its storage and transportation methods should be as free from contaminants as possible.
  2. The water should be treated if it contains any form of fecal coliform (over 99% of which are E. Coli).
  3. The adoption of safe, clean water should be promoted amongst the affected population. Disaster victims may still prefer to use contaminated water for reasons such as taste, proximity and social convenience, and therefore technicians, hygiene promoters and community mobilizes need to take these factors into consideration as they seek to educate as-risk communities.
  4. Steps must be taken to reduce the risk of re-contaminating clean water supplies. It is no good if people collect clean, safe water in dirty buckets. Water should also be routinely sampled at the point of use to monitor the extent of any post-delivery contamination.
  5. Water should be treated with residual disinfection such as chlorine if there is any significant risk of source or post-distribution contamination.

According to SPHERE, the quality of the water is governed by the following criteria:

  • There are no fecal coliforms per 100ml of water at the point of delivery.
  • Any household-level water treatment options used are effective in improving microbiological water quality and are accompanied by appropriate training, promotion and monitoring.
  • There is no negative effect on health due to short-term use of water contaminated by chemicals (including carry-over of treatment chemicals) or radiological sources, and assessment shows no significant probability of such an effect.
  • All affected people drink water from a protected or treated source in preference to other readily available water sources.
  • There is no outbreak of water-borne or water-related diseases.

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