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Toilets, trash and social status: the top 10 emergency hygiene challenges

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 17 Feb 2014 13:04 GMT
hum-wat hum-ref hum-nat hum-dis cli-ino cli-ada
Congolese refugees gather around dry water taps at Bukanga camp, Uganda, July 17, 2013. REUTERS/James Akena
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NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – More than 900 beneficiaries, field practitioners and donors named their most pressing gaps in emergency water, sanitation and hygiene promotion (WASH) services in a 2013 survey.

The Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF), which carried out the survey, plans to solve them through open innovation, where grants of up to $20,000 are given to the best new ideas, and expert brainstorming sessions.

Here are the top 10 gaps HIF will tackle (in no particular order):

1)    Latrine lighting

In many refugee camps, latrines are not lit at night making them dangerous for women to use.

Challenge: To light communal latrines at night in a cheap and sustainable manner.

2)    Space saving jerrycan

In emergencies, agencies traditionally buy and distribute jerrycans, which can mean transporting 15 or 20 litres of air. Collapsible jerrycans only last a couple of months before they start leaking.

Challenge: To design a 15 litre jerrycan, costing less than $5, with limited volume when stored, lasting one year.

3)    Excreta disposal in urban emergencies

Earthquakes and floods often cut off urban water supplies and damage toilets. When large numbers of displaced people gather in safe places like schools, sanitation facilities get overwhelmed.

Many agencies build raised latrines. But they need to be emptied frequently, with waste being dumped in purpose-built pits or rivers, creating health risks. 

Challenges: To develop new products to provide safe excreta disposal in urban environments after disasters. Solutions should consider not only containment, but also emptying and disposal mechanisms.

4)    Hygiene promotion

It is extremely difficult to get most people to wash their hands during or after an emergency. Affected populations often do not use water and sanitation facilities because they consider them inappropriate to their needs or social status or were not involved in their design.

Challenges: To design an approach to enable agencies to better include affected populations and ensure they adopt safe hygiene practices. How can hand-washing products be combined with social marketing to make it desirable for affected communities to wash their hands?

5)    Low cost desalination

In coastal Asia, there is a substantial increase in brackish water due to tidal surges, sea level rise and over abstraction. In drought-prone regions, people have to walk further to get potable water because of high evaporation and poor irrigation practices.

Challenge: To develop desalination technologies to provide sufficient drinking water in different emergency scenarios.

6)    Drainage solutions

Spillage from taps in camps, waste water from washing areas and rain can create large muddy ponds where mosquitoes and parasitic worms breed.

Challenge: To propose a new, low-cost drainage system that eliminates standing water where soil has low permeability.

7)    Rubbish management

Rubbish builds up where there are large groups of displaced people. Some agencies burn waste in pits but it can be difficult to incinerate completely while others have set up recycling projects.

Challenges: To design a low-cost, environment-friendly incinerator for rapid deployment to disaster zones. Secondly, to develop a new approach for solid waste management in camps.

8)    Groundwater mapping

There is often conflict with local communities when displaced people rely upon shared ground water supplies.

Challenge: To develop a system to map and share information about aquifers in emergencies and estimate the sustainable abstraction rate throughout the seasons.

9)    Public health risk mapping

There is little documented evidence of the public health risks in emergencies. Agencies focus on providing water and sanitation without a detailed analysis of the causes, sources and vectors of disease transmission.

Challenge: To collate evidence on the impact of public health risks and design a tool to assess these risks.

10)   Marketing latrines

After disasters, people are often reluctant to invest in their own latrines because they do not see the need or cannot afford to buy construction materials.

Challenge: To promote the construction of latrines after disasters. The focus should be on comfort, convenience, avoidance of filth or promotion of social status as research shows these motivate people more than health issues.

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