arrow_backEmergency WASH

A.6 Existing Capacity

The impact of disasters will be specific to the context in which they take place and the resources and capacity available to manage them. Many emergencies are managed locally or nationally; in others governments may request the support of other countries and agencies. 

Humanitarian response should strengthen local capacities and avoid negative effects. In the past, emergency assessments have often focused solely on the vulnerability of communities, treating them as victims and contributing to a sense of helplessness and dependency. However, communities and authorities are usually the ‘first responders’ and intervene before outside agencies arrive. They possess diverse knowledge, skills, resources, ingenuity and leadership that can contribute significantly to the response. An assessment process must strive to identify how to support, rather than undermine, their capacity. 

Even when government services have been disrupted by an emergency, structures relevant to hygiene promotion (HP) such as health care, health education and social welfare departments will still often exist. In addition, national and local NGOs, faith-based organisations and social entrepreneurs may be involved in WASH or community work and already be responding. Affected communities may have experienced crises before so some people may already be trained in emergency response and HP. 

It is important to collaborate with communities, partners and government structures P.9 because they have a right to be involved in decisions that directly affect them, have significant knowledge of the culture and context and can contribute significantly to the response. Handing over power can help to build resilience and reinforce dignity and self-esteem. They are there for the long term and if they are involved from the beginning, it will enable a smoother exit for humanitarian agencies at the end of the programme or facilitate remote working if needed.

In most emergencies, people will be traumatised to some degree, but the level of trauma and capacity to recover will vary for different people. Hygiene promoters should tread sensitively when communicating with people and be ready to respond to their grief and sense of loss. At the same time, they should recognise that many people will want to play a part in the response and this engagement may support their readjustment and recovery. 

Process & Good Practice

  • Identify key people to contact and consult to help understand the situation, including local authorities, different groups in the community, local NGOs, civil society networks and other key informants T.23.

  • Build up a Community Profile A.7 and document it for future responders.

  • Try to understand how people lived their lives before the emergency and how they have adapted to the current situation.

  • Identify government departments relevant to WASH such as the Ministry of Health and local health clinics, Ministry of Social Welfare or Community Development, Ministry of Public Information and Communication, Departments of Health Education/Promotion, Ministry of Sanitation/Water, or Departments of Disaster Risk Reduction.

  • Aim to understand the national frameworks for public health, health promotion and community welfare. Obtain copies of relevant current guidelines, policies, plans and national standards (such as WASH guidelines or health/HP strategies) to ensure that response strategies are in line with local and national priorities where appropriate.

  • Seek out the support of local advocacy and support groups, such as organisations of persons with disabilities or women’s groups, to understand how to ensure that WASH facilities and services are accessible.

  • Obtain the necessary approvals before visiting communities and familiarise yourself with the common community leadership structures. Be aware that these may exclude women and vulnerable groups and identify local organisations that may help to access these groups.

  • Carry out a market assessment in collaboration with others to identify possible impacts of the programme on the local economy. Consider what form of WASH assistance and market-based programming P.8 modality (e.g. cash, voucher, or in-kind) will have the greatest positive outcome. 

  • Identify existing self-help groups, committees and outreach networks when identifying community volunteers. Agree on transparent mechanisms for volunteer selection with the community. Try to understand the vested interests that might be operating to help avoid conflict. Voluntary HP networks may not always be the most appropriate model for communicating WASH concerns.

  • Draw up Memoranda of Understanding or joint action plans (where possible) with local actors or communities that define the different WASH roles and responsibilities.

  • Find ways to enable the participation of local actors in coordination groups – this may involve providing interpreters and translating WASH meeting minutes.



To ensure that the assessment of WASH needs takes account of the existing local capacity to respond.


  • WASH programmes should strengthen existing state, district and community systems, rather than establish parallel efforts that will not last beyond the duration of the response. It is important to seek out and work with municipal authorities and local government P.9 as much as possible and advocate that they are treated as equal partners with the autonomy to design and/or lead a response P.10.

  • Support the initiatives of local groups and organisations where possible and involve them in the assessment, planning and training. 

  • Where possible, channel funding and support to build the resilience of local responders. For example, funding or providing training for local community strengthening and WASH NGOs will have sustainable effects.


Standards for humanitarian response

Sphere Association (2018): The Sphere Handbook: Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response 4th Edition

Overview of assessment process with descriptions of key assessment tools to support community participation

UNHCR (2006): UNHCR Tool for Participatory Assessment in Operations 1st Edition

Practical information about enabling community participation and supporting local capacity

UNHCR (2008): A Community Based Approach in UNHCR Operations