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Emergency sanitation today: Where are we and what needs to be done?

March 10, 2011

2010 have been a turning point for sanitation in emergencies. The earthquake in Haiti, the floods in Pakistan and the various cholera outbreaks in Haiti and Africa revealed again the importance of the sanitation component in the WAter, Sanitation Hygiene package. They also revealed the strengths and weaknesses of the existing sanitation kits and ready-to-use emergency solutions.

Why sanitation in emergencies?

When a natural disaster happen or when large amount of population are displaced due to a conflict, it is of paramount importance to implement as soon as possible a sanitation solution that can efficiently isolate the faeces and ensure privacy and dignity to the victims.  The overall objective is to avoid spread of disease such as diarrhoea or cholera. This can be done only if we meet 3 conditions:

  1. Coverage (maximal access in shortest time)
  2. Containment (faeces are isolated from human and environmental contact)
  3. Dignity (users have privacy, minimal comfort)

These 3 conditions are obviously difficult to match together. The “perfect” emergency solution would be the one that could provide in just a few hours or days 100% coverage, with no side effect on the environment and with good comfort and safety condition for the users. If on top of these the system could be cheap and easy to transport, we would hit the jackpot. Significant steps have been done these last years and the humanitarian community is still trying to improve the quality and efficiency of the sanitation solutions.

Port au Prince (Haiti) after the earthquake. Urban contexts are always challenging for sanitation due to lack of space and difficulties to dig (paved streets). Photo by the author.


The coverage refers to many aspects:

  • The number of users per toilet
  • The accessibility to all (children, differently able people, elders…)
  • The rapidity of deployment (the greatest number of users should be reached in the minimum of time)

According to the humanitarian standards (SPHERE standards, see the number of users should be 20 per latrines. However, according to the same document, “for a displaced population where there are no existing toilets, it is not always possible to provide one toilet per 20 people immediately. In such cases, a figure of 50 people per toilet can be used, decreasing to 20 as soon as possible, and changing the sharing arrangements accordingly”.

Another important standard is the accessibility for disable people. There should be ideally 10% of installations accessible for disable people. This is particularly important in area where a lot of people have been injured (natural disaster, conflict…).


The faeces should be isolated from direct and indirect human contact. Efficient containment should also avoid contact with vectors such as flies.  The containment should last until the total destruction of all pathogenic content of the faeces. Pits and trenches are the most efficient for that purpose, especially if they are covered once filled. If a desludging process is foreseen, the final destination of sludge should carefully assess and planed at early stage. Desludging itself is a complex and risky operation for the workers and the environment.


The dignity aspect refers to several aspects:

  • Gender (equal repartition of the men and women cubicles)
  • Security (light for the night, locks on door…)
  • Comfort of use and cultural habits (some people may prefer to seat and other to squat down…)
  • Anal cleaning (water or paper…)

Such are some of the challenges we are facing in terms of emergency sanitation. In next papers we will review the existing solutions and promising technologies under development.


Sanitation Advisor

Action Contre la Faim (Paris)


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