Clean water and sanitation prevent disease and save lives after disaster strikes

By Coco McCabe
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Through hot sand and hard rock, an Oxfam teams drills for water in a parched region of North Darfur.

In the days following disasters of the magnitude that hit Haiti on January 12, people have an acute need for clean water and sanitation facilities. Without them, they can’t take care of their most basic requirements.

Water

During earthquakes, like the one that rocked the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, water systems, with their extensive network of pipes and pumps, often collapse. Repairs can take time—time that people who depend on that water to stay alive don’t have.

Without water, people can’t last much beyond three days. That’s why Oxfam focuses much of its emergency response on rushing to provide survivors with a safe supply.

With years of experience responding to emergencies around the world, Oxfam’s water engineers know how to build temporary systems with speed and efficiency so that people can get the water they need. Oxfam trucks water into remote regions, drills for it through desert floors regions, erects massive storage tanks, hauls in generators, repairs pumps, lays temporary water lines, and hands out plastic buckets so people can tote water back to their homes.

And there’s an internationally accepted standard of delivery Oxfam strives to maintain in every crisis. It calls for providing survivors with about four gallons of water per person per day—an amount intended to cover just essential needs.

Here are some of the critical components of an effective emergency water system:

  • Engineers: Oxfam's international technical staff members are mechanical and civil engineers and hydrologists by trade. In emergencies, Oxfam recruits additional workers such as the 1,800 local staffers who assisted one million refugees during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide.
  • Tanks: One Oxfam water tank holds and purifies 70,000 liters—enough to provide daily water for 4,666 people. These "bladders" can be flown in and set up in a matter of hours while truckloads of water are being driven to the scene.
  • Buckets: Used to distribute water, the Oxfam bucket has a built-in cap and spigot to keep water clean. The bucket also contains a standard hygiene kit with cooking utensils, detergent, and disinfectant soap.

Sanitation

Ensuring that disaster survivors living in camp conditions have safe ways to dispose of waste is crucial to helping them live in a healthy and dignified environment, so creating latrines is a key element of Oxfam’s humanitarian programming. 

As quickly as possible after an emergency, we begin constructing simple latrines consisting of holes or trenches in the ground surrounded by light structures of poles and plastic sheeting to provide privacy. As soon as we have the time and resources to do it, we add concrete slabs to stand on to make the latrines cleaner and easier to use.

Oxfam also builds bathing facilities that are designed to be safe and private.

Oxfam makes sure that the displaced communities themselves are involved in the construction and maintenance of their sanitation structures, and in order to help ensure that women and girls feel safe using these communal facilities, we take care that women in particular are involved in decision-making about their location, design, and construction.

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