Sanitation and Disaster

Tsunamis, earthquakes, wars, hurricanes, floods, volcanic eruptions, famines, drought . . . Disasters come in many forms and can claim thousands of lives when they strike. Think of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011, the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, and the armed conflicts in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa. Nowhere is a disaster’s impact more readily seen than in communities already weakened by poverty. Up to 97% of all deaths caused by disasters occur in developing countries.[1]

There is a close connection between poverty and vulnerability to disasters. They can be mutually re-enforcing. Poverty leaves communities open to environmental degradation, an increased risk of disaster from climate change, or vulnerable to violence and oppression. Disasters, in turn, can keep people in poverty, wiping out the few resources they have. Around the world, poor communities lack the infrastructure, planning, and resources to handle the devastation that disasters bring.

Disasters can damage or destroy existing sanitation facilities and displace thousands of people, putting increased pressure on facilities that may already be under strain. When large numbers of people are displaced to escape disaster or violence, many people find themselves in transit or living in crowded conditions with inadequate sanitary facilities. As a result, open defecation occurs in places that either contaminate the water supply, food chain, or both. If some members of the community are practicing open defecation, the whole community is at greater risk of diarrheal and other water-related diseases. Children are especially at risk.[2]

Access to emergency sanitation facilities is an important solution needed to break this terrible cycle of disease and death in impoverished communities that have experienced a disaster. Lifewater is committed to helping communities obtain adequate sanitation. While hardware like water wells and latrines can be destroyed in disasters, the knowledge of the importance of good sanitation for health and the experience of planning and building latrines from locally available materials stays with the people. Lifewater’s training programs strengthen communities, better preparing them for potential disasters and helping them to recover when they do occur.


[1] World Bank, World Development Report 2000/2001: Attacking Poverty. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 170.

[2] B. Wisner and J. Adams, eds., Environmental Health in Emergencies and Disasters: A Practical Guide (Geneva: World Health Organization, 2002), 127-132.

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