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Humanitarian Needs

Relief aid refers to the provision of such assistance to those affected by a disaster, based on an initial rapid assessment of needs, and designed to contribute effectively to their recovery. It consists of the delivery of a specific quantity and quality of goods to a group of beneficiaries, according to selection criteria that identify needs and target those that are least able to provide for themselves. In response to any emergency humanitarian agencies need to pay close attention to the particular needs of communities affected and ensure that their work is coordinated so that a humanitarian response to a situation is the most efficient and helpful it could be. It is important to support local markets in meeting humanitarian needs, and agencies must avoid sending unnecessary goods that do not respond to specific humanitarian needs.

Humanitarian aid

Relief aid responds to the humanitarian needs unique to any single emergency, and can be subdivided into the following categories:


It is essential in every crisis to first determine whether food supply is a correct response. If that kind of response is appropriate, a comprehensive survey should be conducted to define the composition of the food. In every instance, it is necessary to ensure that food donations are culturally and nutritionally appropriate for the affected population and that the costs of their purchase, transportation, storage and distribution are kept to a minimum. Food assistance will not be needed where disasters have no major effect on food stocks or crops, where the effect is localized, or when people are able to draw on their own savings or food reserves. It is important to support local food markets whenever possible, and for agencies and donors to buy food closer to where it is needed. This would make it cheaper, faster and easier to find food people are used to eating.


Shelter is a critical determinant of survival in the initial stages of a disaster. Beyond survival, shelter is necessary for security and personal safety, protection from the elements and resistance to disease. Shelter assistance is provided to individual households for the repair or construction of dwellings or the settlement of displaced households within existing accommodation or communities. When it is not possible to provide individual shelter, collective shelter is provided in suitably large public buildings or structures, such as warehouses, halls or barracks, or in temporary planned or self-settled camps. For more information on shelter in emergencies, please refer to the fact sheet on shelter.

Non-food items

When people have lost everything in a disaster, they require basic and culturally appropriate goods and supplies to maintain their health, privacy and dignity, to meet their personal hygiene needs, to prepare and eat food and to achieve necessary levels of thermal comfort. These items might include clothing, blankets, bedding, stoves and kitchen sets, water containers and hygiene products.

Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Promotion

The lack of access to safe water and sanitation facilities is a major cause of death, disease and loss of dignity in most of the world’s poorer countries. Over 1.1 billion people do not have access to clean water and more than 2.6 billion people do not have access to basic sanitation. More than 2 million people, the majority of whom are children under 5, die every year due to a lack of improved water sources and basic sanitation. The problems caused by a lack of access to safe water and sanitation are made much worse during disasters and crises, and are increasingly influenced by climate change, rapid unplanned urbanization, increasing epidemics and pandemics, population movement and conflict. Lack of safe water is the most common and preventable underlying cause of disease and death in the world today. Emergencies have major consequences on the health of affected populations. Children and women are particularly vulnerable to malnutrition, disease and violence. In the past decade, an estimated 2 million children have died as a result of armed conflict alone. This is largely due to the interruption of existing health and social services. This is often compounded by population displacement, lack of access to food and other essential commodities, overcrowding, and poor water and sanitation facilities. Excess morbidity and mortality results from the indirect causes of conflict or natural disasters, such as malnutrition and communicable diseases.