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CLOSE THIS BOOKWater Manual for Refugee Situations (UNHCR, 1992, 160 p.)
4. Immediate response during emergencies
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Water Manual for Refugee Situations (UNHCR, 1992, 160 p.)

4. Immediate response during emergencies

· Organize as soon as possible an inventory of all water resources at the camp site and its surroundings.

· If the minimum amount of water cannot be met by local sources, alternative arrangements should be made, either to import water from other sources (water tankers, barges, etc.) or to move the refugees to more suitable camp sites.

· Whatever the water source, take immediate action to prevent its pollution by excreta.

· Organize a distribution system that prevents pollution of the source and ensures equity if there is insufficient water.


1. Short-term emergency measures may be necessary while the long-term supply system is being developed or pending the move of refugees to more suitable sites (See 12.4). If locally available water resources are insufficient to meet the minimum requirements of the refugees, arrangements must be made to bring in water by truck (water tanker) or any other relevant means of transportation (e.g. donkey or ox carts); this type of solution will involve considerable efforts to develop adequate and cost-effective facilities for the loading or unloading of the vehicles at the source or at distribution points (See 9.8) and it will need a well organized logistical support for the whole operation (roads, fuel or feed for animals, etc.). If this is not possible, the refugees must be moved to better campsites without delay. Often, however, the quantity of water available will meet initial minimum requirements and the immediate problem is quality: it should always be assumed that water is likely to be dangerously contaminated, unless proven otherwise by relevant water analyses (See 1.3; 8.6).

2. During the first days of an emergency, the refugees will be using surface water or, less often, groundwater from wells or springs. They will normally use whatever water is available, regardless of its quality. Start by organizing the refugee community and by making them aware of the possibilities and dangers of existing water sources. To do this, get immediately in contact with as many refugee community leaders as necessary or possible. Convey to them the idea of trying to prevent further pollution of these sources by excreta and the need to follow simple rules to achieve this goal, such as drawing water in the upstream portions of flowing rivers, creeks or canals, allocating areas for laundry or body washing downstream of the drinking water intake areas, or watering animals at the extreme downstream portion of flowing water bodies. All these areas could be fenced off, if necessary, to minimize monitoring requirements and to ensure full effectiveness of these measures.

Fig. 2 Drawing Water from a River

3. If the source is a well or a spring, fence off, cover and control the source. Prevent refugees drawing water with individual containers which may contaminate the source. If possible make arrangements to store water and to distribute it at collection points away from the source. Not only does this help avoid direct contamination but storage may improve, to some extent, water quality.

4. At the same time action must be taken to increase the quantity of water available to the refugees from existing sources and to ensure the effectiveness of any distribution system.

5. From the start, families will need to be able to carry water for storage at their households. Suitable containers (10-20 litres) are essential. The type and size of these containers should be decided upon after carefully considering their immediate availability, the suitability of their design, and the most probable users (pregnant women or children are not capable of lifting very large containers full of water for long distances; larger containers may prove useful as household reservoirs). Considerable attention must be given to the need to keep these containers clean (See 10.9).

6. If the immediately available supplies of water are insufficient, action to ration supplies and to ensure equitable distribution must be a priority. Water rationing is difficult to organize. Firstly, access to the sources must be controlled; the use of full-time watchmen may be necessary. The second step is to control water distribution points; uncontrolled distribution points may be abused during or after water distribution operations. These operations must be organized in accordance with strict time schedules which may be applicable on a camp-wide basis or for individual watering points, in accordance with the needs and the circumstances. Vulnerable groups may need special arrangements. Every effort must be made to increase the quantity of water available so that strict rationing is unnecessary.

7. In parallel to these steps, action must be taken to plan how the need for water may best be met in the longer term to allow the construction of a water system capable of meeting all the refugee community needs in a cost effective way for as long as necessary. The following sections outline the main considerations.