Disasters can affect anyone, but in low-income countries they have devastating impacts on people living in poverty. In places where clean water is already scarce and sanitation inadequate, disasters make life even more difficult for people. This is often true in the countries where we work.

When people living in poverty lose their homes, belongings and livelihoods in a natural disaster, it can take them much longer to recover. They are also less likely to survive.

Access to clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene are crucial to keeping people healthy in the wake of a disaster. But above-ground water supplies and sanitation facilities are often contaminated, damaged or destroyed, causing waterborne illnesses to spread fast. The displacement of people can also lead to crowded conditions, straining facilities and resources. Diarrhoeal diseases such as cholera are some of the most common causes of death at these times. Water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) are therefore among the biggest immediate priorities in recovery.

We want to make sure WASH facilities and systems are built to withstand disasters and governments are ready to respond effectively. This means that when disasters strike, people have the support and infrastructure they need to recover.

The need to build the resilience of communities to natural disasters is urgent. Climate change is already causing more frequent and extreme weather events across the globe, such as floods, droughts and cyclones. Without improving water security and sanitation for people on the frontlines of climate change, the effects of disasters on communities will be even more devastating.

WASH: the foundation for building climate resilience

Climate change is already increasing the frequency and severity of floods, droughts, storm surges, temperature extremes and sea level rises. Access to clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene can help people cope with these extreme weather events.

Bishakha, 35, outside new WASH facilities. She is from the Munda community, living in their ancestor’s house with her husband and only son in Satkhira, Bangladesh. December 2022.
Image: WaterAid/Fabeha Monir

Our approach

To make sure everyone, everywhere has clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene – especially as quickly as possible after a disaster – we must ensure WASH systems and structures are built with disasters in mind. We work with local authorities and other agencies through the Global WASH Cluster to find out where and how best we can assist with disasters – when and before they happen.

We work with communities to advise on technology and planning to ensure they are more resilient to, and prepared for, disasters. For example, in flood-prone areas in Nepal, we work to reduce the risks from a disaster by building raised toilets and water points. In high-risk areas we develop disaster preparedness plans, such as in West Africa where we ensure communities and local authorities have response plans for diseases such as cholera.

We also advocate for broader systemic change so that governments and other institutions implement early warning systems, and adapt water and sanitation infrastructure to reduce disaster risk. For example, in Bangladesh, we worked with communities to influence national policies on disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation. Here, people create ‘vulnerability maps’ to identify those most at risk, especially from river floods. These are then used to negotiate with governments and institutions on infrastructure improvements, such as improved drainage and adaptation of water and sanitation facilities.

Although we are not set up to respond to emergencies, when disasters happen in the places where we work, our expertise and local connections mean we are often well-placed to work with other organisations to help communities respond and recover. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, we used our extensive experience in running hygiene programmes to rapidly design and deliver a multi-country hygiene behaviour change programme to help prevent the spread. The campaign reached 242 million people through our country programmes across Asia and Africa. 

As the climate crisis continues to increase the frequency and severity of disasters across the world, we need to act quickly to ensure the communities most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change are prioritised, prepared and protected.

Top image: Kiequer, 14, steps over floodwaters at his old house destroyed by flooding in Maputo Province, Mozambique. September 2023.

Secondary image: Bishakha, 35, outside new WASH facilities. She is from the Munda community, living in her ancestor’s house with her husband and son in Satkhira, Bangladesh. December 2022.

Page last updated: May 2024