Water and habitat

29-10-2010 Overview

Each year, armed conflict disrupts millions of lives. The ICRC’s water and habitat activities ensure that people in conflict zones have access to water and create or maintain a sustainable living environment. Ultimately, this work reduces death and suffering due to habitat damage or disruption to water supplies.

Maintaining water supplies and sanitation in conflict zones has been an ICRC priority since the organization set up its Water and Habitat Unit in 1983. Communities frequently lack shelter, medical care and access to safe drinking water because sources have been damaged or destroyed. Health risks add to the trauma of war.

In acute crisis situations where water supplies are interrupted (sometimes deliberately) and lives are at risk as people seek alternative sources in a hostile environment, the ICRC aims to ensure emergency access to water and health care and to maintain whatever local facilities remain. In emerging, chronic and post-crisis situations, the ICRC’s priority is to ensure continuity of basic services by supporting and strengthening existing resources.

The ICRC’s Water and Habitat Unit has five main areas of activity:

  • Water supply, storage and distribution
  • Sanitation, waste management and environmental science
  • Restoration and management of electric power
  • Construction, repair and safety of structures
  • Provision of temporary community facilities

Its approach to this work is community-based and includes coordination with the relevant authorities – essential to ensure sustainability. The organization identifies and implements solutions that are consistent with local culture and technological capabilities. The desired outcome is not only an immediate practical response to emergency needs, but also the facilitation of permanent improvements to infrastructure in damaged communities.


Water is essential to life. Access to water is a global problem and is set to become more acute. The ICRC seeks to maintain access to water for the most vulnerable segments of the population in emerging, acute, chronic and post-crisis situations.

Armed conflicts and natural disasters can result in urgent water needs, sometimes because of massive population displacement. It is essential to ensure access to sufficient quantities of water, of adequate quality, as rapidly as possible. In an emergency, and as a last resort, the ICRC brings in water by road while looking for a sustainable solution. In most cases, it is necessary to provide adequate water storage facilities in communities and households, a measure that greatly reduces health risks. ICRC support ranges from the infrastructure problems of major cities such as Baghdad to ensuring access to water in remote rural areas of Chad.

In chronic crises, the ICRC evaluates needs in order to clarify expectations on all sides. Identifying the best source of water involves assessing location, water yield and water quality and taking account of construction, operation and maintenance considerations. The best water source may not be the one currently in use.

Surface water from rivers, lakes or reservoirs is readily available and easy to extract. However, these water sources may be polluted. Ground water is better, because of the filtering action of the soil through which it flows. But if the soil contains high concentrations of iron, manganese, or salt, surface water may be the only option. Rainwater may be a viable alternative, depending on rainfall patterns, local roofing materials, availability and cost of storage, atmospheric pollution and other factors.

The ICRC assists in the repair or construction of all types of water supply system, regardless of size and technology. This work covers water intake from sources, treatment, storage and distribution. In rural areas, work includes improving hand-dug wells and installing motorized pumps at boreholes.

The ICRC also improves access to water and basic hygiene in conflict situations where overcrowding in places of detention can pose a serious threat to health.

Sanitation and hygiene

Overcrowding in refugee camps or prisons quickly leads to the spread of disease. Providing proper sanitation is essential to the prevention of disease, and is therefore a high priority for the ICRC.

Excreta and other forms of waste create health risks. The ICRC adopts sustainable solutions, ranging from the construction or repair of latrines and sewage systems to the disposal of waste, including hospital waste.

Mice, rats and insects often spread disease in overpopulated, confined areas that lack adequate food, water, health services, shelter or sanitation. The ICRC’s strategies to control the means by which diseases spread include community awareness, sanitation management, water supply, personal protection (repellents, mosquito nets, etc.) and the use of insecticides.

The organization also runs-hygiene promotion programmes to encourage behaviour that will help prevent water- and sanitation-related diseases.


After a disaster or conflict, there is often a need for shelter or temporary housing. The requirements will vary according to climate, culture, and expected length of use, among other factors, but the ICRC has experience of every type of emergency.

The immediate response may be to provide plastic sheeting or tents. But the response can also take the form of temporary accommodation in schools, mosques, churches, private homes and other facilities. Every emergency has particular needs that the ICRC must evaluate quickly in order to provide optimum support.

The provision of emergency shelter is an integral part of the ICRC’s water and habitat programme, but always forms part of a wider approach, encompassing site selection, access to basic services, security and camp management in conjunction with other humanitarian services.

The ICRC also undertakes the post-crisis repair or reconstruction of health facilities and schools, the renovation of prisons and other places of detention, the construction of camps for displaced people and the provision of material assistance (housing, heating and cooling systems, water and electricity, etc.) to families returning to their communities.

Environment and energy

All humanitarian organizations face new environmental considerations that will increasingly influence the management of emergencies. Poorly planned movements of people may pose environmental degradation risks and create tensions within communities. The ICRC seeks to anticipate and address these issues in all its resettlement projects.

The ICRC restores or maintains power supplies to essential installations such as hospitals, water treatment plants and water distribution networks, by repairing power distribution networks, generators, and hydroelectric plants.


Photo, Kenya, Rift Valley. Children drinking from the tap of an ICRC-installed standpipe. 

Kenya, Rift Valley. Children drinking from the tap of an ICRC-installed standpipe.
© ICRC / A. Mucheke / V-P-KE-E-00166

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