Emergency Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH)

The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) declared in 2007 that access to safe water and sanitation is a human right that applies in times of peace as well as in emergencies.

The Importance of WASH

In the last decade of the 20th century, almost two billion people – a third of the world’s population – were affected by natural disasters, and 86% of these disasters were floods and droughts. Those affected by emergencies often suffer from malnutrition, injuries, stress and other ailments. Unsanitary living conditions such as inadequate sanitation, lack of water or poor hygiene make affected populations even more vulnerable and prone to diseases. Having inadequate water and/or sanitation can lead to increased instances of diseases and death, and a lack of hygiene can contribute to diarrhea, cholera, measles, scurvy, and other hygiene-related disease outbreaks in emergencies – all preventable with the right resources and awareness. For this reason, water and sanitation and hygiene (WASH) are often among the most important elements in humanitarian disasters.


The top priorities for WASH elements in a humanitarian response should be providing sufficient quantities of safe water, arrangement of basic sanitation, and promoting good hygiene behaviour. Responses by most humanitarian organizations range from rapid and limited interventions in acute emergencies to comprehensive long-term interventions in complex emergencies. Urgent WASH services include providing hygienic sanitation facilities, protecting water supplies from contamination, providing water that is safe for cooking and other essential hygiene purposes, ensuring that people have containers to obtain and store water cleanly, and distributing soap, water purification tablets and family water kits, and education and awareness surrounding proper hygienic habits in emergencies.

As with other elements of humanitarian responses, WASH has a Global Cluster—a network of humanitarian organizations, led by UNICEF, that participate in providing assistance in humanitarian responses.