By providing clean water, hygiene promotion, and sanitation services during emergencies we can save countless lives.
In South Sudan, the threat of famine looms; to the north, flooding has damaged or destroyed the homes of tens of thousands of people in Sudan; violence has flared in Gaza; and three million refugees are on the run from Syria. Though the source of their suffering is different, every family enduring these crises has at least one thing in common: the need for clean water and decent sanitation services.
Both are essential for human survival, and they are two key ways that you—and Oxfam—can make an enormous difference in people’s lives.
With your support, Oxfam focuses on ensuring access to water and sanitation in most of the emergencies it responds to, whether they are food crises, natural disasters, or violent conflicts. Without clean drinking water, a person can only live for a few days. And without careful attention paid to hygiene and the safe disposal of fecal wastes, the deadly diseases they trigger can race through crowded settlements with devastating consequences.
“Ensuring people have the right information and materials they need is vital to improving the public health and wellbeing of communities,” said Myra Foster, Oxfam America’s senior advisor on public health. “In emergency situations, when families are often crowded together in unfamiliar surroundings, helping them meet their basic needs for clean water and sanitation is absolutely essential. It saves lives.”
The challenges of water delivery
As vital as water is, providing displaced people with enough of it can often be an enormous challenge for aid workers. International guidelines, known as the Sphere standards, call for each person in an emergency to receive up to 15 liters a day of water to meet their basic drinking, cleaning, and cooking needs. That’s just shy of four gallons—a fraction of the more than 300 gallons an average American family uses in a day on activities like showering, flushing toilets, and doing laundry.
Delivering those precious liters to displaced families living in temporary camps or scattered through urban neighborhoods requires not only hardware—pumps, pipes, storage tanks, and faucets often flown in from great distances--but logistical ingenuity.
In Gaza, Oxfam is trucking water to schools where many families are sheltering. Since the start of the crisis we have provided more than 250,000 people with a safe drinking supply. And we’ve also installed emergency generators to keep water flowing to four Gaza City neighborhoods. Gaza’s water and sanitation infrastructure has been badly damaged, thereby affecting supplies for 1.2 million people—about two-thirds of the population.
In Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp, where about 85,000 people from Syria have sought safety, Oxfam is operating in three of the camp’s eight districts. About 25,000 people live in those districts and Oxfam has set up water tanks and is managing the supply network there. A different agency delivers the water in trucks to the districts between one and three times a day. But because of water scarcity in Jordan, everyone is having to make do with less, with weekly schedules that alternate showers, clothes washing, and home cleaning. At home, Syrians used between 19 and 38 gallons of water per person a day; in the camp, which has now become the fifth biggest community in Jordan, there’s only enough for each person to get about 9 gallons a day.
“Underground aquifers are depleting fast. The settlement of thousands of Syrian refugees in a water-scarce region is putting huge pressure on available water resources,” said Andy Boscoe, Oxfam’s Zaatari program manager. Water shortages are one of the camp residents’ top concerns.
Sanitation and hygiene are essential to health
But water is just part of the equation. Hygiene and the safe disposal of waste are just as critical to protecting lives. It may sound like a small thing, but the importance of hand washing can’t be over-stated. Stemming the spread of germs and bacteria is key to saving lives.
That’s why Oxfam places so much emphasis on hygiene promotion. For instance, in war-torn Sudan, where many families have been uprooted from their homes, Oxfam has been working to avert outbreaks of deadly disease by helping community members promote safe hygiene practices to more than 100,000 people living in crowded camps.
"From the public health women, I learned to cover food to keep away flies because they transmit diseases. I also learned about keeping things clean—our jerry cans, kitchen utensils, latrines, and my children's hands," said Maryam Gado, who was living in a camp near the town of El Fasher, in Darfur. "Previously, my children didn’t wash their hands before they ate. They were often weak and not healthy. Now, they wash their hands before eating. They don't suffer from diarrhea, and if they happen to get sick, it isn't something serious."
In South Sudan, where the fighting that erupted last December has forced more than a million people from their homes, seasonal rains have increased the misery of many—and the danger of disease. When cholera broke out in Juba, the capital, in the spring, Oxfam responded with water treatment and latrine construction. But Oxfam’s job is not only to build latrines, it’s to take them out of service before they get too full. In a settlement known as Mingkaman in Lakes state, for instance, we have decommissioned 90 blocks of latrines even as we finished construction on new ones.
And we have been working with a team of public health promoters to help spread the word on hand washing, latrine use, and community garbage collection. Among the 78 promoters in Mingkamen in May was Martha Nyadeng, a mother and grandmother who fled from Bor with six children when fighting broke out. She earns a small bit of income from Oxfam for her public health work.
Nyadeng takes pride in keeping the toilets she's in charge of in good shape. She cleans them three times a day and regularly provides hand-washing demonstrations to children.
“I take care of this latrine as my own, not for Oxfam. I keep them clean to prevent us from getting sick,” said Nyadeng. “People are learning. It’s good because when they come to the toilet they wash their hands and when they go home the bacteria is removed. They’re preventing diseases.”
Ready to respond
We can’t always predict when disasters will strike, but—with your help—we can respond when they do.
“At home in the US, we turn a faucet and abundant, safe water comes out,” said Kenny Rae, Oxfam America’s senior advisor on public health engineering. “This is a luxury denied to countless people around the world—especially during emergencies. Water is either in short supply, or contaminated, or both. Oxfam works to provide not only sufficient water, but also to ensure that is filtered or treated to ensure its safety and the health of those who use it.”
Your support is critical in making sure that we can carry out this life-saving work. Your gift to our Saving Lives 24/7 fund allows us and our worldwide network of partners to spring into action when a crisis hits.