arrow_backEmergency WASH

X.8 Water Safety and Risk Management

Drinking water should not pose a risk to human health. As water safety measures cannot be directly observed or measured, a risk assessment and management approach is required. Risk management from source to consumer enables the prediction of possible risks and provides the most efficient protection against exposure to waterborne contaminants. This includes protecting the water against contamination and/or treating water to remove contaminants. In emergencies, it may also include other risks such as user, system and operator security (e.g. from violence) as well as risks related to institutional and financial weaknesses.

The goal of a Risk Management Framework is to control, prevent or reduce risks. This framework can be used as a tool to design, implement and improve risk management strategies as a part of an overall strategy or governance. The risk management process is used to effectively implement risk management principles at all levels and functions of the organisation or institution. The key steps of the risk management process include:

  • Characterisation of the context Risk assessment, which includes risk identification,
  • risk analysis and risk evaluation  Risk treatment, which includes the choice
  • and implementation of practices for risk treatment Monitoring and review of the process and risk-treatment measures
  • Communication and consultation 

A Water Safety Plan (WSP) is a risk management approach specific to drinking water supply systems. Its major focus is on the risks related to the health of a user group or consumer of the drinking water. The WSP has been developed for practitioners to apply the WHO framework for safe drinking water to all types and sizes of drinking water supplies in urban and rural contexts. In an emergency context, the implementation of the WSP is essential to guarantee long-term water safety in recovery and protracted contexts. A WSP enables source protection, contaminant removal during treatment and prevention of recontamination during distribution, transport, storage and handling.

For a specific water system, each step of the supply chain is scrutinised to identify the severity of potential hazards and the likelihood these hazards will either enter the system or not be properly removed. Risks are assessed and prioritised, and an improvement plan is developed to address the identified risks. An operational monitoring plan is essential to verify that the WSP is always working properly and to prepare adequate management and communication strategies. When implemented properly, a WSP will improve system understanding, stakeholder collaboration and knowledge sharing, and skills and capacities. 

It will also help prioritise optimisation needs and improve operation, management and infrastructure, increase user or community confidence in their water supply system, strengthen the sense of ownership, and leverage financial support.


WSP implementation

The WSP approach is flexible and must be continuously adapted to local conditions and circumstances.

The implementation consists of eleven steps (also called modules):

  1. Assemble the WSP team. Engage senior management, identify required expertise, set an appropriate team size, appoint a team leader, define roles and responsibilities and define a time frame for developing the WSP.
  2. Describe the water supply system. Draw a detailed map of the system, identify users and uses of the water and gather detailed system information. Perform a field visit to verify that the description is accurate.
  3. Identify hazards and hazardous events. Identify all potential hazards and all hazardous events that could affect water safety throughout the supply chain.
  4. Determine and validate control measures and assess and prioritise risks. List the existing control measures for all hazardous events and obtain evidence that they can be controlled. Evaluate the risks associated with each hazardous event while considering the effectiveness of the existing control measures.
  5. Develop, implement and maintain an improvement plan. For risks that are not appropriately controlled, decide on actions and make an improvement plan with defined roles and responsibilities to ensure their implementation.
  6. Define monitoring of control measures. Establish an operational monitoring programme to assess the continued effectiveness of control measures and to allow for timely action to prevent problems from occurring. This includes checklists, a monitoring plan with assigned responsibilities, record keeping and data analysis.
  7. Verify the effectiveness of the WSP. Confirm that the WSP as a whole works effectively through three verification-monitoring activities: compliance monitoring, audits and consumer surveys. WHO and IWA have developed a specific guidance manual for auditing a WSP.
  8. Prepare management procedures. Document the actions to be taken and the steps to follow during normal operating conditions and emergency situations. 
  9. Develop supporting programmes. Develop or improve operator training programmes, consumer education programmes, training on laboratory quality control, etc.
  10. Plan and carry out periodic review of the WSP. To maintain an up-to-date WSP, the complete plan should be reviewed periodically and revised if necessary, particularly after an improvement plan is implemented and to consider any new hazards that might arise.
  11. Revise the WSP following any incident. Reflect on lessons learned from near-misses, unforeseen events or emergencies.

Potential barriers leading to low managerial commitment to a WSP include:

  • Water suppliers might view a WSP as creating additional work
  • High operator turnover might jeopardise WSP implementation
  • Lack of financial resources
  • Challenges of designing and carrying out audits