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WASH in emergencies

Ethiopia Drought Crisis (Credit: Abiy Getahun/Oxfam)

At a glance

In an emergency, our WASH work focuses on reducing public health risks.


The purpose of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WaSH) promotion activities in emergencies is to reduce public health risks. After emergencies people are often traumatised, hungry, dehydrated and exhausted, and, therefore, they are more vulnerable to diseases such as diarrhoea and cholera. The WaSH  activities reduce exposure to diseases by providing clean water, an environment free from faecal contamination and the knowledge and practice on hygiene behaviour. A large emphasis is put on enabling communities to promote safe practices in a way that is most appropriate to their context and circumstances.

How we work

Water: The rapid supply of clean water to affected populations is vital. Oxfam work covers from water trucking to groundwater development by rehabilitation and construction of boreholes and wells, spring catchments, water treatment plants and water distribution networks. As well as providing clean drinking water, or household filters and the ability to collect and store the water safely, Oxfam ensures there are facilities for showering and clothes washing.

Safe excreta management: Safe disposal of human excreta is the first barrier to reduce the transmission of disease outbreaks such as diarrhoea and cholera. Oxfam provides and supports latrine construction and rehabilitation at the community level, in camps for displaced people, schools and health centres. This is done in consultation with the users and often with long term sustainability in mind. It is often the case with displacement that what starts out as temporary often becomes long-term. The average refugee camp lasts 17 years.

Solid Waste ManagementDrainage and Vector Control: Poor waste management contaminates water sources and creates vector (mosquitoes) breeding sites. Oxfam provides and promotes domestic and community waste collection and management; improves drainages to avoid stagnant water; and, promotes cleaning campaigns to avoid vector breeding sites.

Raising awareness of public health risks and preventive practices: Awareness raising through effective and culturally appropriate communication media is vital. In previous Oxfam programmes this has included street theatre, radio broadcasts, puppet shows, story telling, songs composed by local musicians, discussion groups, videos, flash cards, and posters.

Community mobilisation: This helps to ensure target populations are enabled to make and implement decisions relating to their health and well-being. Local stakeholders are encouraged to be involved in identifying problems and solutions, the needs of vulnerable groups and individuals, and mechanisms for ensuring access to and maintenance of water and sanitation facilities.

Distribution of items essential for health and hygiene: This may include   soap, handwashing devices and clean water containers. The provision of culturally appropriate material for women to use for menstrual protection and facilities to enable hand washing at key times are important considerations. Other items may be included in accordance with available resources and community priorities.

Health data monitoring: morbidity and mortality data collected from available health centres or NGOs working in the area are important for monitoring disease trends and if necessary targeting areas with disease outbreaks. Monitoring access and use of the water and sanitation facilities is vital for understanding the effect of the programme and making timely adjustments when required.


The impact of an emergency public health programme can be maximised if the response is also supported by effective advocacy and communication. Oxfam adheres firmly to the Minimum Standards set out in the SPHERE charter. To ensure maximum impact of our and others' humanitarian programmes, we promote coordination and collaboration with other national and international, governmental and non-governmental humanitarian agencies.

Oxfam would always aim to coordinate its WASH activities with other parts of the programme (such as food security and livelihoods) especially when good coordination would result in an even better health environment. Oxfam has a firm commitment to ensuring that the public health assessment is conducted and analysed in the context of existing gender roles and social relations, and their relevance to current risk, vulnerability and mitigation of disaster effects.

We use a combination of direct implementation and support for partners to:

  • assess public health risks and the capacity of key stakeholders to respond
  • find out about local norms and practices and identify appropriate technical options
  • develop communication strategies to raise awareness of public health risks and solutions
  • consult communities on the siting, design and management of facilities, and explore appropriate ways for them to be involved in implementing and monitoring the intervention
  • recruit, train and support local staff, and explore options to create partnerships through which to deliver the programme
  • establish two-way communication with beneficiaries, and modify programme activities according to feedback
  • establish a mechanism for monitoring the technical quality of interventions.