By Megan Rowling
Here in Marseille, aid groups like Action Contre La Faim (Action Against Hunger - ACF) are patting themselves on the back for pushing water-related humanitarian emergencies higher up the political agenda, saying they've made it to the heart of World Water Forum discussions for the first time.
They were mentioned as a priority in the Forum’s ministerial declaration and tackled in a big discussion on water and disasters.
The expert panel highlighted the rise in the frequency and intensity of floods and droughts, as well as the challenges of providing access to clean water and hygiene after a disaster.
Kristalina Georgieva, the European commissioner for aid and emergency response, said water and sanitation needs are soaking up a growing share of humanitarian funding - not least because floods and droughts often end up compounding existing water and hygiene deprivation for the poorest.
"One of the consequences in a disaster is that communities that didn't have much access to safe water, and especially sanitation, to begin with... have even less," she said.
"For the humanitarian community what it means is that, over the last decade, we have seen a 30-times increase in funding... to provide safe water and sanitation,” she added.
“And even with this increase, we don't quite manage to meet the needs."
ACF President Benoît Miribel agreed that "disasters are happening where there is already a disaster", whether it's a scarcity of water or bad sanitation, leaving some countries and communities in "a permanent state of disaster".
Another issue that is often neglected in crisis situations is the disposal and treatment of wastewater, Miribel said.
Used water from hospitals and medical facilities can be harmful because it is often contaminated with bacteria, posing a threat to public health.
Loïc Fauchon, president of the World Water Council, which co-organised the sixth triennal water forum, called for better evaluation of water and sanitation needs in emergencies.
That should be performed by a U.N. brigade of "water blue helmets", he told AlertNet in an interview.
"We need to have one evaluation - not 50 - which is a global, technical and professional evaluation," he added.
"The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is not really doing that now."
A lack of joined-up thinking between emergency response and development work only makes things worse.
Maria Mutagamba, Uganda's water and environment minister, recalled how she had visited Karamoja - an arid, impoverished region of her country - after it was hit by floods in 2007.
When she went back several months later, she found women eating leaves (to extract liquid) because there was no water available despite earlier heavy rains.
"That was a disaster," she told the panel.
The minister said she had since been unable to get the funding she needed to build reservoirs in Karamoja to help store water and alleviate drought because the money wasn't available.
In fact, her budget has fallen slightly, she added.
"It's unlikely that if a disaster strikes today, I could respond," Mutagamba said, calling on donors to provide more funds for disaster preparedness in countries like hers.
The Ugandan government could also help by taking a more pro-active, speedier approach, she noted.
In 2010, she had tried to order water tanks and toilets for a crisis-hit area, but because the procurement process took 60 days, people were already going home by the time the equipment arrived.
European commissioner Georgieva said water and sanitation needs in humanitarian emergencies are growing much faster than funding to address them.
In response, she is planning to craft a new policy on access to safe water and sanitation in humanitarian activities, aimed at boosting the speed and quality of action and strengthening coordination.
For example, in a drought situation, food assistance has to take into account the scarcity of water, so aid agencies shouldn't bring in food that requires a lot of water to be washed and cooked, she said.
Tablets to purify water should be stocked ahead of time, and temporary accommodation for displaced people must be designed with adequate sanitation in mind.
“Most importantly for us, (we must) recognise that more and more disasters are hitting urban areas, and traditional humanitarian action is not well honed to help in urban areas where you need more sophisticated equipment – large-scale water purification plants, for example,” Georgieva said.
With this in mind, her office is working more closely with the European Commission's civil protection mechanism that can mobilise more sophisticated equipment for natural disaster zones, she added.
With weather- and climate-related disasters causing increasing damage in large urban areas where slums in particular may lack sanitation and access to clean water, the U.N. International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) is working with local authorities and parliamentarians to make cities more resilient.
Its acting director, Helena Molin-Valdes, said the key is to persuade them it makes sense to invest in better infrastructure and urban planning before disasters hit.
"The issue of disasters is a negative one," she explained. "But the more we can build the risk management concept into positive planning, the more it becomes a politically attractive agenda."
Naomi Chakwin, head of the Asian Development Bank's European office, said few policy makers are against the idea of managing risk.
And many agree that local communities should be consulted on how best to avert disasters and help them cope better when they do happen.
But it's a long, slow process.
"It is very difficult and will take a long time and a lot of resources," she added. "But we are all moving in this direction and it will get better."