Water and sanitation: ‘Adapt to the setting to become more effective’

In every humanitarian mission, water, sanitation and hygiene are key issues for the people affected.  WASH*, as it is often called, is a crucial area of work, in emergency situations as well as settings where reconstruction and development are taking place.  Timothée Le Guellec, WASH advisor for Première Urgence Internationale, explains the main challenges involved. 

Bangladesh 2018

Children refill their water container in a refugee camp in Bangladesh © Première Urgence Internationale, February 2018.

Access to safe drinking water, basic sanitation and good hygiene habits are three vital and essential elements for all human beings. Humanitarian crises, no matter what their cause might be, undermine these fundamental rights. According to WHO’s (the World Health Organization’s) 2018 health report, “Unsafe drinking water, unsafe sanitation and lack of hygiene remain important causes of death“. In 2016, there were more than 870,000 associated deaths.

Since 2016, Première Urgence Internationale has been giving their expertise in this area an extra focus with a dedicated consultant. Water, sanitation and hygiene is now one of the 8 areas that we work in, worldwide. So “We are not the kind of organisation that can deal with WASH issues on an emergency basis. And respond to a catastrophe caused by a natural event anywhere in the world in less than 48 hours”, specifies Timothée Le Guellec, WASH advisor for Première Urgence Internationale. “Our work is based on an integrated approach, with health as its starting point. In concrete terms, this means ensuring people and health services have access to water, sanitation and hygiene: humanitarian aid up until the point when the crisis is over. WASH is indispensable to our work in health and nutrition, and means we can reduce mortality rates linked to water-borne and infectious diseases”.

Ensuring minimum standards are met

Even today, 60% of the population worldwide does not have access to improved sanitation. In other words 4.4 billion people (WHO report 2017). Throughout the world, Première Urgence Internationale builds or reconstructs water points, latrines and other health infrastructures. Particularly in remote areas, in schools and health centres, for example. The organisation also works to raise awareness among populations about public health problems, and carries out work to prevent and control infections, in areas of the world affected by cholera or the Ebola virus.

In health centres, the NGO’s teams strive in particular to ensure minimum humanitarian standards are met, “so that patients have water, and doctors can do their work in the best conditions possible”. In Yemen, for example, the main challenge is providing clean water, to support the health and nutrition work being done. “WASH and health are very closely linked”, explains Timothée Le Guellec. Thus “It is especially crucial to support the local teams with their everyday work, the basic requirement being to allow doctors, nurses and midwives to wash their hands and to clean their equipment with water of sufficient quality and quantity… Even today, it is quite common to see health or maternity centres with no access to water. Patients need to bring their own jerrycans with them!”

Finding local solutions

Even when water and sanitation is available. As well as waste disposal management and raising awareness, a population’s hygiene habits still may not be improved. “It isn’t necessarily linked to the desire, or not, to wash their hands: it could be that soap is too expensive, or that the journey to the water point is too dangerous”, Timothée Le Guellec tells us. “So, it’s really important for us to adapt to the population’s actual needs. This is achieved by listening and talking to people to understand what the problems are. And this helps us to be more effective with our response”.

“Although we’re not a civil engineering company or a firm of engineering consultants, some areas we’ve worked in have led to us carrying out some really technical projects,” says Timothée Le Guellec. In Syria, the NGO is reconstructing urban water networks; in Iraq, it’s water treatment plants; and in Afghanistan, solar pumping, or medical waste management. “In every case, as an NGO, we adapt to the setting and find solutions to ensure the best quality possible, with the help of external resources if necessary.” The NGO has a close partnership with the organisation Aquassistance, that provides support with various technical issues.

That is why, in every place that it works, the NGO maintains the same objective: to support local groups to safeguard the infrastructures. “We can do this using a very diverse and sometimes complex range of work, combining water policies, the price of water, monitoring, for example of quality, cartography, securing a supply of spare parts, liaising with local authorities, organisations and the community… Issues with sustainability sometimes require us to work with other areas of expertise: protection, income-generating work, etc.,” explains Timothée Le Guellec.

Safeguarding the environmental impact

By drawing on innovations and technological advances developed in this sector, the NGO is working to ensure a sustainable minimum standard is met everywhere. So, making the right technological choices that are suitable for the setting is extremely important.

In parallel, the Première Urgence Internationale teams ensure that the techniques used:

  • Do not have an impact on the environment;
  • Have maintenance costs that are affordable and as cheap as possible for the local populations.

We have to think not only about what technology might costs us today. But also what it will cost in the long term, for future populations.

* WASH is an acronym, which stands for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene. 

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