How can water-related diseases be prevented during emergencies?

Online Q&A
19 May 2008

Q: How can water-related diseases be prevented during emergencies?

A: The three top priorities concerning drinking water and sanitation during an emergency situation are:

  • ensuring the provision of enough safe water for drinking and for personal hygiene to the people affected by the crisis;
  • ensuring that all people affected by the crisis have access to hygienic sanitation facilities;
  • promoting good hygiene behaviours.

Following damage to existing sanitation systems or increased pressure due to large numbers of displaced or homeless people, effective and well-coordinated action by all those involved in the emergency response is critical.

The first priority is to provide a sufficient quantity of water, even if its safety cannot be guaranteed, and to protect water sources from contamination. A minimum of 15 litres per person per day should be provided as soon as possible. During emergencies, people may use untreated water for laundry or bathing. Water-quality improvements should be made over succeeding days or weeks as a matter of urgency.

Inadequate disposal of human excreta is a major health risk in emergency situations. It is essential to organize sanitation facilities immediately, such as designated defecation fields or collective trench latrines. Emergency facilities need to be progressively improved or replaced with simple pit latrines, ventilated improved pit latrines, or poor-flush latrines as the situation develops. All types of latrines need to be properly cleaned, disinfected and maintained.

The provision of drinking water and sanitation services in health facilities is a top priority. Safe drinking water, basic sanitation facilities and safe disposal of infectious wastes will prevent the spread of disease and improve health conditions.

In all cases, good hygiene practices are key to preventing disease transmission. Water should be provided in sufficient quantities to enable proper hygiene. Hands should be washed immediately after defecation, after handling babies' faeces, before preparing food and before eating.

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