States are responsible for their citizens, and this mandate, duty and leadership role must be respected by external actors. During emergencies, this duty is generally readily assumed by the government and is often expressed clearly in national disaster management policies. The capacity of the government to respond depends to some extent on the wealth of the state, with middle income countries consistently able to deploy more assets and with greater institutional capacity. International non-state actors such as the UN, INGOs and the Red Cross/ Crescent Movement provide significant support to supplement the capacity of low-income countries and, to a lesser extent, middle-income countries. However, in armed conflicts involving the government, populations in areas not controlled by the government are often not provided with governmental assistance such that the international community mobilise to provide the relief required. Where conflict results in refugees taking shelter en masse in third countries, even when the government is a signatory of the 1951 refugee convention, the government’s capacity to respond may be exceeded. Here, considerable resources are typically deployed by the international community, and agencies often play a strong service provision role.
Whatever the balance between national capacity and international support mobilised in response to a crisis, all parties must respect and observe the regulatory environment, including relevant national policy, standards held by ministries and local government regulations. Local/ municipal-level regulations are likely unfamiliar to external actors but must be understood. Finally, regulations like tariff setting for water charges are often suspended when ‘free’ water is made available for the period of the emergency. It is therefore critical that all actors providing water in a locality understand the tariff regulations and agree with the local government and utilities about when water charges will be reintroduced. Here, the reinstatement of water tariffs should not lead to households relying on negative coping mechanisms to meet basic water provision needs.
National governments can find broad developmental targets they can aspire to meet in the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 6.1 of “Safe and affordable drinking water for all by 2030”. While the SDGs are broad targets for normative development, disruptions due to emergencies should first be stabilised, and then the country should be put back on track to achieve these targets. To aid in this, emergency responders should keep target 6.1 in mind for the emergency phase and actively look to contribute to this for the recovery and long-term development phase. Regulations and standards may be interpreted and applied differently for refugees, even though the SDGs aspire to leave no one behind.
National water standards, whether developed by the sector ministry or as part of national disaster management plans, are not always adapted for crisis situations, meaning it might not always be appropriate or feasible to deliver non-adapted standards. If national emergency guidelines are not specific or do not exist, the Sphere Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response should be referred to for guidance. It may be necessary to engage government stakeholders in discussions about the application of these standards.
In large-scale crisis situations, ad hoc time-bound coordination mechanisms are often introduced. Where these features are part of a national disaster management plan, government leadership will probably be strong, and international agencies must support such established mechanisms. The internationally developed cluster-coordination system gives UNICEF global and often national WASH cluster/sector leadership. This is sometimes adopted as part of a government coordination plan or it may sit alongside other government mechanisms, wherein it must still support government plans to fulfil their obligations. The refugee coordination mechanism, led by UNHCR, may maintain distance from the national government to remain an impartial protection oversight, but ultimately there still needs to be communication between the parties. Because of the life-saving (rather than development) focus of general emergency coordination mechanisms, these tend to have poorly defined links to normative developmental sector coordination platforms. During the recovery phase, it is particularly important that the government, the UN agencies in lead coordination roles and other agencies align their coordination efforts with the normative development sector coordination platform. This should also include coordination between implementing organisations at the field level to ensure continuity of service and technology and long-term operation and maintenance.