“Readers, I selected this story–written by a colleague here at Oxfam–when I learned that the focus of October’s issue of The Journal of Sustainable Finance and Banking would be on food and nutrition. Although Oxfam has worked on food and hunger issues from our inception, far too few people recognize the significance that clean water and sanitation play in maintaining the health and well-being of people around the world. The story below offers just one example of Oxfam’s work.”               – Ray Offenheiser, President of Oxfam America

By providing clean water, hygiene promotion, and sanitation services during emergencies we can save countless lives.

In South Sudan, the threat of famine looms; across West Africa, an outbreak of deadly Ebola is terrorizing communities and three million refugees are on the run from Syria. Though the source of their suffering is different, every family enduring these crises has at least one thing in common: the need for clean water and decent sanitation services.

Both are essential for human survival. Without clean drinking water, a person can only live for a few days. And without careful attention paid to hygiene and the safe disposal of fecal waste, the deadly diseases they trigger can race through crowded settlements with devastating consequences.

“Ensuring people have the right information and materials they need is vital to improving the public health and well-being of communities,” says Myra Foster, a senior advisor on public health for Oxfam America, a global organization working to right the wrongs of poverty, hunger, and injustice. “In emergency situations, when families are often crowded together in unfamiliar surroundings, helping them meet their basic needs for clean water and sanitation is absolutely essential. It saves lives.”

The Challenges of Water Delivery

As vital as water is, providing displaced people with enough of it can often be an enormous challenge for aid workers. International guidelines, known as the Sphere standards, call for each person in an emergency to receive up to 15 liters a day of water to meet their basic drinking, cleaning, and cooking needs. That’s just shy of four gallons — a fraction of the 80 to 100 gallons an average American uses in a day on activities like showering and flushing toilets.

“At home in the US, we turn a faucet and abundant, safe water comes out,” adds Kenny Rae, Oxfam America’s senior advisor on public health engineering. “This is a luxury denied to countless people around the world — especially during emergencies. Water is either in short supply, or contaminated, or both. Oxfam works to provide not only sufficient water, but also to ensure that it is filtered or treated to ensure its safety and the health of those who use it.”

Delivering that precious water to displaced families living in temporary camps or scattered through urban neighborhoods requires not only hardware — pumps, pipes, storage tanks, and faucets often flown in from great distances – but logistical ingenuity.

In Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp, where about 90,000people from Syria have sought safety, Oxfam is operating in three of the camp’s eight districts. About 25,000 people live in those districts and Oxfam has set up water tanks and is managing the supply network there. A different agency delivers the water in trucks to the districts between one and three times a day at an estimated cost of about $3.5 million a year. But because of water scarcity in Jordan, everyone has to make do with less, with weekly schedules that alternate showers, clothes washing and home cleaning. At home, Syrians used between 19 and 38 gallons of water per person a day; in the camp, which has now become the fifth-largest community in Jordan, there’s only enough for each person to get about 9 gallons a day.

“Underground aquifers are depleting, and we do not have a good understanding of the risks to future water supplies. The settlement of thousands of Syrian refugees in a water-scarce region is putting huge pressure on available water resources,” notes Andy Boscoe, Oxfam’s Zaatari program manager.  Water shortages are one of the camp residents’ top concerns.

Oxfam is now working with partner organizations in Jordan to build a network that will pipe water into the camp. The system won’t increase the quantity of water available to residents, but it will improve its reliability.

Sanitation and Hygiene are Essential to Health

But water is just part of the equation. Hygiene and the safe disposal of waste are just as critical to protecting lives. It may sound like a small thing, but the importance of hand washing can’t be over-stated. Stemming the spread of germs and bacteria is key to saving lives.  That’s why Oxfam places so much emphasis on hygiene promotion.

In South Sudan, where the fighting that erupted in December 2013 has forced more than a million people from their homes, seasonal rains have increased the misery of many — and the danger of disease. In a settlement known as Mingkaman in Lakes state, Oxfam has been digging latrines and working with a team of public health promoters to help spread the word on hand washing, latrine use, and community garbage collection. Among the 78 promoters in Mingkaman during the spring campaign was Martha Nyadeng, who fled from Bor with six children when fighting broke out. Health promoters earn a small bit of income for their work—about $10 a day.

Nyadeng takes her work seriously, ensuring that the toilets she’s in charge of are kept clean. And she regularly provides hand-washing demonstrations to children.

“I take care of this latrine as my own, not for Oxfam. I keep them clean to prevent us from getting sick,” says Nyadeng. “People are learning. It’s good because when they come to the toilet they wash their hands and when they go home the bacteria is removed. They’re preventing diseases.”

Your Support Helps Aid Groups Respond

Aid groups can’t always predict when disasters will strike, but their job is to respond when they do. At Oxfam, that life-saving work depends on the support of individuals and foundations. Their donations fund essential equipment and allow Oxfam and its worldwide network of partners to spring into action when a crisis hits.  For more information visit the Oxfam America website.

Coco McCabe is a former newspaper reporter who now writes for Oxfam America about its humanitarian work around the world.