Emergency sanitation

Emergency sanitation is the management and technical processes required to provide sanitation in emergency situations. This can include man-made or natural disasters. Emergency sanitation is also required during humanitarian relief operations for refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).

Emergency toilet in Haiti, suitable for areas where digging pit latrines is not possible

Emergency situations are classified into three phases which are called the "immediate", "short-term" and "long-term" phases. In the immediate phase, the focus is on reducing open defecation. Toilets provided might include very basic latrines, pit latrines, bucket toilets, container-based toilets or chemical toilets.

Providing showers and handwashing facilities is also part of emergency sanitation during all phases. Fecal sludge management becomes a priority during the long-term emergency management phase.


The term "Emergency" is perceived differently by different people and organisations. In a general sense, an emergency may be considered to be a phenomenon originating from a man-made and/or natural disaster which results in a serious, usually sudden threat to the health or well-being of the affected community which relies on external assistance to easily cope up with the situation.[1]

There are different categories of emergency depending on its time frame, whether it lasts for few weeks, several months or years.[1]

The number of people who are and will be affected by catastrophes (human crisis and natural disasters), which are increasing in magnitude and frequency, is rapidly increasing. The affected people are subjected to such dangers as temporary homelessness and risks to life and health.[2]


Emergency pit latrines with bathing shelters built in the Bidi Bidi refugee settlement in northern Uganda

To address the problem of public health and the spread of dangerous diseases that come as a result of lack of sanitation and open defecation, humanitarian actors focus on the construction of, for example, pit latrines and the implementation of hygiene promotion programmes.[3]

The supply of drinking water in an urban-setting emergency has been improved by the introduction of standardised, rapid deployment kits.

In the immediate emergency phase, the focus is on managing open defecation, and toilet technologies might include very basic trench latrines, pit latrines, bucket toilets, container-based toilets, chemical toilets. The short term phase might also involve technologies such as urine-diverting dry toilets, septic tanks, decentralized wastewater systems.

In urban emergencies, the main focus is usually on a quick rehabilitation and extension of existing services such as sewer-lines and waste-water treatment plants. This can also include the installation of sewerage pumping stations to improve or extend services.


The emergency response often has to differ greatly based on the setting it takes place.

Home based

Home based settings where people choose to stay in or close to their homes (or those of their relatives, neighbours or friends). While this setting offers the quickest way to (self-) recovery, it also poses a high risk of sanitation related impacts due to the common lack of access to outside help and inadequate public-health monitoring.

Host community

Host community settings with significant displacement into outside communities (usually urban) with existing but maybe also effected sanitation infrastructure in private homes.

Existing infrastructure in such settings is usually quickly overloaded due to the increase in population density and improvements/repair is often hindered by access- and space-limitations. Intra-community conflicts over the sanitation waste management are thus fairly common.

Mass shelter

Mass shelter settings where the displaced population is housed in existing but often re-purposed building-complexes such as schools, community centres, places of worship, malls, warehouses and sport stadiums. In some disaster prone countries, dedicated large emergency shelters are build for this purpose.

Existing sanitation facilities are usually inadequate for full-time stay of a high number of people, and the non-emergency management structures are typically unable or unwilling to continue their services. Legal issues over the re-purposing are also fairly common, especially if occupation continues for a longer time.

Due to usually cramped living conditions there is a high risk of conflict and often also cases of sexual violence, both of which often are in some relation to the sanitation facilities.

Emergency settlements

Emergency settlements (formal or informal) where previously sparsely populated areas are newly occupied by the displaced population in large numbers. Typically these are set up by governments, the UN and humanitarian aid organisations.

Due to the typically short time frame of arrivals and the non-existing infrastructure, these kind of encampments pose maybe the greatest challenge in regards to providing adequate emergency sanitation facilities.


Emergency pit lining kits, suitable for areas with high water table

The provision of sanitation programmes is usually more challenging than water supply as it provides a limited choice of technologies.[3][4] This is exacerbated by the overwhelming and diverse needs of WASH.[4]

Challenges with excreta disposal in emergencies include:

  • Building Latrines in areas where pits cannot be dug, desludging latrines, no-toilet options and the final treatment or disposal of the fecal sludge.[5]
  • Weak community participation and finding hygiene promotion designs that are suitable for a given context to make the WASH interventions sustainable.
  • Newly arriving IDP or refugee populations can usually only be settled in less than ideal areas, such as land that is prone to regular flooding or which is very dry and with rocky ground. This makes the provision of safe sanitation facilities and other infrastructure very difficult.
  • In long running emergencies, the safe decommissioning or desludging of previously quickly built sanitation facilities can also become a serious challenge.
  • Humanitarian actors need to understand the importance of better preparation and resilience and the need for exit strategies and have consideration on the environment.[5]

See also


  1. Peter Harvey, with contrib. from Andy Bastable...[et al.] (2007). Excreta disposal in emergencies a field manual : an inter-agency publication. Loughborough: Loughborough university. Water, engineering and development centre (WEDC). p. 250. ISBN 9781843801139.
  2. BORDA (2010). EmSan - Emergency Sanitation - An innovative & rapidly applicable solution to safeguard hygiene and health in emergency situations. Bremen Overseas Research and Development Association (BORDA) & BORDA BNS Network
  3. Grange, C. (2016). Faecal Sludge Management - WASH in Emergencies, Problem Exploration Report. HIF (Humanitarian Innovation Fund) Problem Exploration Report. Cardiff: ELRHA
  4. "Urban Humanitarian Response Portal". urban-response.org. Retrieved 2017-04-19.
  5. Bastable, A., Russell, L. (2013). Gap Analysis in Emergency Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Promotion. Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF), London, UK
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