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

When poorer people in low-income countries lose their homes, belongings and livelihoods in a natural disaster, it can take them much longer to recover than wealthier people. They are also less likely to survive. Between 1994 and 2013, higher-income countries experienced 56% of disasters but lost 32% of lives, while lower-income countries experienced 44% of disasters but suffered 68% of deaths.

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, helping 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 facilities and systems are built to withstand disasters, and governments are ready to respond effectively, so that when disasters happen vulnerable people have the support and infrastructure they need to recover.

The need to mitigate against the effects of future natural disasters is urgent. Extreme weather events such as floods, droughts and cyclones are happening more often in some areas, and ongoing climate change is expected to continue to cause more frequent and more extreme events. Without improving water security and sanitation in the most vulnerable areas, the effects of these disasters will be even more devastating.

'Wild waters' are on the rise

Climate change is causing more frequent and more extreme weather events such as cyclones, flooding and drought. Without addressing water security issues in the mos vulnerable areas, the effects of these disasters will be more devastating

Image: WaterAid/ Tom Greenwood

Our approach

What part do we play in mitigation and recovery?

To make sure everyone, everywhere has clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene – especially as quickly as possible after a disaster – we must ensure systems and structures are built with disasters in mind. We work with local authorities and other agencies through the Global Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (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 with the authorities to reduce the risks from a disaster by building raised toilets and water points.

In high-risk areas we develop preparedness plans. For example, in West Africa we ensure communities and local authorities have response plans for diseases such as cholera, which have helped us to take part in the response to Ebola.

We advocate broader systemic change so that governments and other institutions implement early warning systems and adapt water and sanitation infrastructure to reduce disaster risk. For instance, in Bangladesh we have worked with communities to influence national policies on disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation. People there are creating ‘vulnerability maps’ to identify those most at risk, especially from river floods, and using them to negotiate with authorities 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 hit in places where we work our expertise and local connections mean we are often well-placed to work with other organisations to help communities recover. For instance, after Cyclone Phailin in India, we helped disinfect wells and restore facilities, and used that opportunity to influence how the state should prepare for future disasters.

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

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