C. Water

1. General

People can survive much longer without food than without water. Thus, the provision of water demands immediate attention from the start of an emergency. The objective is to ensure the availability of enough safe drinking water to meet at least minimal health and hygiene needs, including drinking, cooking, washing, and bathing. While the discussion in this section emphasizes DP camps to a great extent, most of the material is also applicable to assisting with the water concerns of small communities impacted by disaster or conflict.

Adequate storage capacity and backup systems for all water supplies must be ensured, because interruptions in the water supply may be disastrous. To avoid contamination, all sources of water used by displaced populations must be isolated from sanitation facilities and other sources of contamination.

Availability will generally be the determining factor in providing sufficient quantities of safe water. It may be necessary to make special arrangements for water source selection and/or development, pumping, storage, and distribution. To ensure the safety of water from the source to ultimate consumption in the home, measures will be required to protect the water from contamination at all points in the system. Disinfection or other forms of treatment may be required to ensure that the water is safe to drink.

Improvements in the existing water supply may take time, particularly if drilling or digging wells or constructing pipelines is necessary. In many DP emergencies, only contaminated surface water (standing water, streams, or rivers) is initially available. Immediate action must be taken to stop further pollution of the source and to determine if the water can be made safe. If it becomes evident that available sources of water are of inadequate quantity or unsafe, arrangements must be made to bring in water by truck. When the basic water needs cannot safely be met from existing sources in the area, and new sources cannot be readily developed, the DPs should be moved to a more suitable location.

Available water sources must be immediately protected from pollution, especially human and animal excreta. Initially, rationing of scarce water may be needed. An influx of displaced people may overburden water resources used by the local population. Rationing will ensure survival of the weak and equity in distribution to the rest of the displaced population. The design, establishment, and operation of a water supply system must be closely coordinated with the site layout, and with health and sanitation measures.

a. Evaluating Water Sources

Although estimating the immediate need for water does not require special expertise, evaluating different sources of supply does. Depending on the situation, sources of water may be identified by:

  • Local government.
  • Local population.
  • The DPs.
  • UN/PVOs/NGOs/IOs.
  • An inspection of the lay of the land (ground water is often near the surface in the vicinity of rivers and in low places generally, or is indicated by richer vegetation).
  • Maps and surveys of water resources.
  • National and expatriate experts (hydrologists).
  • Water diviners.


The evaluation of available water sources requires expertise in hydrology, engineering, and water treatment. It provides the basis for selecting an appropriate system for the selection and/or development of water sources and the distribution of water.

Seasonal factors must be carefully considered. Supplies that are adequate in the rainy season may dry up at other times. The quality of water may also change over time. Local knowledge will be essential.

b. Water System Considerations

The development and operation of the water system should include the involvement of the displaced people to the maximum extent possible. The displaced people, particularly those of rural background, may have relevant skills, such as digging and maintaining wells. Others may be familiar with simple pumps or common pump motors. Such skills can and should be fully used in planning, developing, operating, sustaining, and repairing the water system. Displaced people without prior experience should be trained as necessary.

Although special equipment may be required for ground water exploration or surface water treatment, efforts should be made to establish a water supply system with materials and equipment found locally. The chosen technology should be kept simple and appropriate to the area and should draw on local experience. Where mechanical equipment is unavoidable, pumps and supplies should be standardized, and repair expertise and fuel should be available locally.

For a water system to remain effective, both the organizational and technical aspects of the complete water supply system need to be carefully monitored. System use must be regulated, water wastage and contamination minimized, maintenance assured, and technical breakdowns quickly repaired. Basic public health education on such topics as the importance of avoiding polluting the water with excreta and the use of clean containers in the home is essential.


TOC: C. Water

Last updated: May 17, 2017