Links to the Humanitarian Charter and international law
The minimum standards for water supply, sanitation and hygiene promotion (WASH) are a practical expression of the shared beliefs and commitments of humanitarian agencies and the common principles governing humanitarian action that are set out in the Humanitarian Charter. Founded on the principle of humanity, and reflected in international law, these principles include the right to life with dignity, the right to protection and security and the right to receive humanitarian assistance on the basis of need. A list of key legal and policy documents that inform the Humanitarian Charter is available for reference in Annex 1
, with explanatory comments for humanitarian workers.
Although states are the main duty-bearers with respect to the rights set out above, humanitarian agencies have a responsibility to work with disaster-affected populations in a way that is consistent with these rights. From these general rights flow a number of more specific entitlements. These include the rights to participation, information and non-discrimination that form the basis of the core minimum standards, as well the specific rights to water, sanitation, food, shelter and health that underpin these and the other minimum standards in this Handbook.
Everyone has the right to water and sanitation. This right is recognised in international legal instruments and provides for sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses and accessible sanitation facilities. An adequate amount of safe water is necessary to prevent death from dehydration, to reduce the risk of water-related disease and to provide for consumption, cooking and personal and domestic hygienic requirements.
The right to water and sanitation is inextricably related to other human rights, including 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. States and non-state actors have responsibilities in fulfilling the right to water and sanitation. In times of armed conflict, for example, it is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless drinking water installations or irrigation works.
The minimum standards in this chapter are not a full expression of the right to water and sanitation. However, the Sphere standards reflect the core content of the right to water and sanitation and contribute to the progressive realisation of this right globally.
The importance of WASH in disasters
Water and sanitation are critical determinants for survival in the initial stages 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 sanitation, inadequate water supplies and inability to maintain good hygiene. The most significant of these diseases are diarrhoeal and infectious diseases transmitted by the faeco-oral route (see Appendix 4: Water- and excreta-related diseases and transmission mechanisms). Other water- and sanitation-related diseases include those carried by vectors associated with solid waste and water. The term ‘sanitation’, throughout the Sphere Handbook, refers to excreta disposal, vector control, solid waste disposal and drainage.
The main objective of WASH programmes in disasters is to reduce the transmission of faeco-oral diseases and exposure to disease-bearing vectors through the promotion of:
good hygiene practices
the provision of safe drinking water
the reduction of environmental health risks
the conditions that allow people to live with good health, dignity, comfort and security.
Simply providing sufficient water and sanitation facilities will not, on its own, ensure their optimal use or impact on public health. In order to achieve the maximum benefit from a response, it is imperative that disaster-affected people have the necessary information, knowledge and understanding to prevent water- and sanitation-related diseases and to mobilise their involvement in the design and maintenance of those facilities.
The use of communal water and sanitation facilities, for example in refugee or displaced situations, can increase women’s and girls’ vulnerability to sexual and other forms of gender-based violence. In order to minimise these risks, and to provide a better quality of response, it is important to ensure women’s participation in water supply and sanitation programmes. An equitable participation of women and men in planning, decision-making and local management will help to ensure that the entire affected population has safe and easy access to water supply and sanitation services, and that services are appropriate.
Better disaster response in public health is achieved through better preparedness. Such preparedness is the result of capacities, relationships and knowledge developed by governments, humanitarian agencies, local civil society organisations, communities and individuals to anticipate and respond effectively to the impact of likely, imminent hazards. It is based on an analysis of risks and is well linked to early warning systems. Preparedness includes contingency planning, stockpiling of equipment and supplies, emergency services and stand-by arrangements, personnel training and community-level planning training and drills.
Links to other chapters
Many of the standards in the other chapters are relevant to this chapter. Progress in achieving standards in one area often influences and even determines progress in other areas. For a response to be effective, close coordination and collaboration are required with other sectors. Coordination with local authorities and other responding agencies is also necessary to ensure that needs are met, that efforts are not duplicated and that the quality of water and sanitation interventions is optimised.
For example, where nutritional standards have not been met, the urgency to improve the standard of water and sanitation is greater as people’s vulnerability to disease will have significantly increased. The same applies to populations where HIV and AIDS prevalence is high or where there is a large proportion of older people or persons with disabilities. Priorities should be decided on the basis of sound information shared between sectors as the situation evolves. Reference is also made, where relevant, to companion and complementary standards.
Links to the Protection Principles and Core Standards
In order to meet the standards of this Handbook, all humanitarian agencies should be guided by the Protection Principles, even if they do not have a distinct protec- tion mandate or specialist capacity in protection. The Principles are not ‘absolute’: it is recognised that circumstances may limit the extent to which agencies are able to fulfill them. Nevertheless, the Principles reflect universal humanitarian concerns which should guide action at all times.
The core minimum standards are essential process and personnel standards shared by all sectors. The six core minimum standards cover people-centred humanitarian response; coordination and collaboration; assessment; design and response; performance, transparency and learning; and aid worker performance. They provide a single reference point for approaches that underpin all other standards in the Handbook. Each technical chapter, therefore, requires the companion use of the core minimum standards to help attain its own standards. In particular, to ensure the appropriateness and quality of any response, the participation of disaster-affected people – including the groups and individuals most frequently at risk in disasters – should be maximised.
Vulnerabilities and capacities of disaster-affected populations
This section is designed to be read in conjunction with, and to reinforce, the core minimum standards.
It is important to understand that to be young or old, a woman or an individual with a disability or HIV does not, of itself, make a person vulnerable or at increased risk. Rather, it is the interplay of factors that does so: for example, someone who is over 70 years of age, lives alone and has poor health is likely to be more vulnerable than someone of a similar age and health status living within an extended family and with sufficient income. Similarly, a 3-year-old girl is much more vulnerable if she is unaccompanied than if she were living in the care of responsible parents.
As WASH standards and key actions are implemented, a vulnerability and capacity analysis helps to ensure that a disaster response effort supports those who have a right to assistance in a non-discriminatory manner and who need it most. This requires a thorough understanding of the local context and of how a particular crisis impacts on particular groups of people in different ways due to their pre-existing vulnerabilities (e.g. being very poor or discriminated against), their exposure to various protection threats (e.g. gender-based violence including sexual exploitation), disease incidence or prevalence (e.g. HIV or tuberculosis) and possibilities of epidemics (e.g. measles or cholera). Disasters can make pre-existing inequalities worse. However, support for people’s coping strategies, resilience and recovery capacities is essential. Their knowledge, skills and strategies, their access to social, legal, financial and psychosocial support as well as the various physical, cultural, economic and social barriers they may face in accessing these services in an equitable manner also need to be advocated for and supported.
The following highlight some of the key areas that will ensure that the rights and capacities of all vulnerable people are considered:
Optimise people’s participation, ensuring that all representative groups are included, especially those who are less visible (e.g. individuals who have communication or mobility difficulties, those living in institutions, stigmatized youth and other under- or unrepresented groups).
Disaggregate data by sex and age (0–80+ years) during assessment – this is an important element in ensuring that the WASH sector adequately considers the diversity of populations.
Ensure that the right to information on entitlements is communicated in a way that is inclusive and accessible to all members of the community.