Disaster Preparedness in the Water Sector of Developing Countries

EarthzineArticles, Disaster Management Theme, In-Depth, OpEd, Original, Sections, Themed Articles, Water

Photo showing a bunch of hands holding up the earth. Photo: Gandee Vasan/Getty Images


In recent years, it has become the state-of-the-art approach in disaster management to intervene, although nearly every concept or strategy highlights the higher efficiency of preparedness activities (e.g. LEWIS, 1999; COMMISSION OF THE EUROPEAN COMMUNITIES, 2001; UNITED NATIONS INTERNATIONAL STRATEGY FOR DISASTER REDUCTION, 2008). Both emergency response after the impact of a disaster and development cooperation are subject to countless handicaps. Some of them appear in the chaotic situation after the event, others within the time of reconstruction.

The dimension of a natural catastrophe goes far beyond what is presented in the media. Personifying natural processes as ‰ÛÏevil‰Û leads to drastic consequences (PLOUGHMAN, 1995). People are decoupled from their natural surroundings, responsibilities are undefined and passed on. Increased vulnerability of communities at risk can have manifold reasons, whereas poverty is often presented as the major root cause. In fact, poverty is one crucial reason for high communal vulnerability, which triggers further interconnected weaknesses of the system, but by far not the only one.

Many people in threshold and developing countries suffer from systemic weaknesses. These circumstances mostly do not get any media attention. Compared to huge-scale disasters, their impacts are simply not as impressive. Nevertheless, high levels of vulnerability serve as the breeding ground for severe impacts of huge-scale disasters like floods or thunderstorms. Capacity building is nearly impossible, if economy and the political system are unstable. Lack of knowledge transfer and education nurtures the dispersal of diseases. The list seems endless.

Increasing Preparedness

A major problem of disaster management is that international (mostly North American or European) teams are well prepared, but the victims are not. Naturally, that leads to little trust in the helping teams’ activities and poor understanding of their actions. Besides, even National Societies of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in developing countries run the risk of losing face in front of their governments if they admit that a certain disaster exceeds their capacities. Since systemic vulnerabilities are far more distinct in developing countries, it is clear that international preparedness strategies have to focus on mutual capacity building in the Third World.


Table showing analysis of number of disasters, economic loss and casualties between 1991 and 2000 (adapted from IFRC, 2001)

Table 1 illustrates the number and consequences of natural disasters in developing, threshold and industrialized countries.

This is one of the reasons why Water and Sanitation Kits (WatSan-Kits) were developed. Their main purpose is to serve as a buffer before international assistance has to be requested. Experts from the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement help National Societies to practice on one of the three different types of WatSan-Kits in their own country to increase preparedness. Whether people in a developing country actually benefit from the technology was assessed in a master thesis at the University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences, Vienna, Austria.

The Water and Sanitation Kit-Approach

WatSan-Kits were designed to strengthen local, regional and national capacities in disaster prone areas and pre-crisis situations. Depending on which kind of kit is pre-positioned, 2,000, 5,000 or 10,000 people can be provided with treated water, sanitation, hygiene promotion, vector control, etc. As a first means of intervention, the kits are operated either by regional or national disaster response teams (IFRC, 2008).

The kits are a lot easier to transport and operate for National Societies than emergency response equipment. Hence, they can replace the request for international emergency response units or at least serve as a buffer until they arrive. Figure 1 (below) compares the capacities of the kit system to standard emergency response equipment.


Figure showing comparison of Emergency Response Units (ERU) and WatSan Kits

Prices range between 13,000 (Kit 2) and 106,000 Euros (Kit 10). While Kit 2 is more or less restricted to basic hygiene promotion and disinfection for scattered populations, Kit 10 already includes:

‰Û¢ a diesel pump

‰Û¢ water purification units (flocculation and coagulation units, sand filter, active carbon filter, chlorine dosing units, max. capacity 4 m3/h)

‰Û¢ a 10 m3 rigid water tank

‰Û¢ a 5 m3 bladder tank

‰Û¢ water quality testing equipment

‰Û¢ buckets, jerrycans, low flow water dispenser

‰Û¢ rapid latrine material, etc.

Case Study: United Republic of Tanzania

After a flood catastrophe in January 2010, the United Republic of Tanzania was the first country to gain practical experience with WatSan-Kits.


‰Û¢ the population increased from 7.7 to 43.7 million between 1950 and 2009

‰Û¢ 80 percent of the population live in rural areas

‰Û¢ GDP is 251 US $/year (2001)

‰Û¢ 35-50% live below poverty line (numbers vary)

‰Û¢ Average life expectancy is 55 years

‰Û¢ Water supply coverage: 55 percent

‰Û¢ Average water collection time: 2 hours

‰Û¢ Freshwater resources are expected to decrease by 50% until 2025

‰Û¢ 23,900 children die of diarrhoeal diseases every year

‰Û¢ main driver for seasonal precipitation is the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ).

The climatic vulnerability of the United Republic of Tanzania was shown in 1997/1998, when El Ni̱o caused severe floods and droughts. The results were food shortages, skyrocketing food prices and enormous losses in cattle and cash crops. People had to walk up to 50 kilometers to receive emergency aid rations (EHRHART and TWENA, 2006).


Figure showing the location of Tanzanian Floods, January 2010

The Flood Event

Heavy precipitation, which had started on 24th of December 2009, lead to a major flood event in the Eastern parts of the country between the districts of Kilosa and Kongwa. Affected regions are highlighted in Figure 2.

According to RELIEF WEB (2010), more than 1,000 people were displaced and approximately 25,000 affected at the beginning. Infrastructure suffered enormous losses. Roads, bridges and rails were swept away. Around 1,000 houses were completely destroyed in Kilosa. Similar to the floods in 1997/1998, crops and wells, which served as main water supply, were flooded. And again cases of cholera and acute watery diarrhea were reported.

A first emergency appeal was launched on the 20th of January 2010. In an operation’s update, it is reported that 50,000 people were affected and 28,000 had to leave their homes due to further heavy precipitation and a thunderstorm. The update especially highlights vulnerabilities that were caused by the collapse of the water and sanitation infrastructure.

International support was provided by the International Red Cross Federation’s Eastern Africa Regional office in Nairobi (Kenya) with WatSan-Kits 10. Three Austrian delegates, two Regional Disaster Response Team delegates and three WatSan officers of the Tanzanian National Society supervised the kit’s operation and maintenance. Additionally, Districts Mpwapwa and Kongwa received three WatSan 2 kits on the 16th of February.

Performance of the Kits

WatSan-Kits are a complementary bottom-up instrument to various general top-down processes, such as the ones recommended in the UNITED NATIONS INTERNATIONAL STRATEGY FOR THE DISASTER REDUCTION (2008): development of early warning systems and social safety nets, better insurance cover, avoidance of uncontrolled settling, etc.

Nevertheless, they cannot be regarded as a common preparedness activity or instrument. It is necessary to distinguish between vulnerabilities that lead to unsafe conditions (root causes) and others that are related to disaster relief. WatSan-Kits do not affect root causes, which finally pave the way for natural disasters. They can generally provide efficient disaster relief in the water supply sector, if some basic improvements are considered. Sanitation and hygiene promotion, for instance, is part of the kits’ concept, but practically under-represented. Only the most complex and most expensive, Kit 10 includes the full hygiene promotion add-on when it is pre-positioned.

Training is a crucial prerequisite to provide efficient emergency response. However, the training component especially has to be improved with regard to actual conditions in specific target countries. Delegates and affected people also need to understand dynamic pressures of hazards (WISNER et al., 2004) and that technical equipment is only one way of mitigating vulnerability (LEWIS, 1999).

An internal review of the IFRC (2008A) criticizes the purely technical focus of emergency response operations, which sometimes leads to a worse level of preparedness than before the impact of the disaster. WatSan-Kits could be designed in a far more interdisciplinary way. Vulnerability and capacity assessments have been carried out by the IFRC around the world. Obviously, standardized equipment and technically trained personnel are not enough to cope with the impact of a large-scale disaster.

Regarding the technical aspects of the kits, Red Cross staff mentioned three main weaknesses:

1. There were not enough spare parts.

2. Operation and maintenance were too complicated.

3. Training did not prepare team members well enough for emergencies.

However, one major advantage of the kits is that they might enable the local community to cope with small scale disasters without having to call for international help or losing face in front of the government.

The kits are standardized, which is both an advantage and disadvantage. Training people on the system should enable them to operate every kit around the world. Simultaneously, standardization neglects the individuality of locations and disaster events. Sometimes the major needs are pit latrines, sometimes emergency shelter, sometimes water supply.


Figure showing a SWOT-Analysis of the results of a questionnaire and expert interviews

In this regard, especially the scientific basis for the kits pre-positioning, which does not exist yet, is crucial. The local National Society was lucky to be supplied with kits and delegates from neighboring countries. If the kits had been positioned in the United Republic of Tanzania from the beginning, the risk of impassable transport routes and delays would have been lower.

Figure 3 depicts a SWOT-analysis, which is based on results of a questionnaire that was sent to the Tanzanian Red Cross National Society and several discussions with experts in Austria and on site.

Thinking ahead

The fastest, cheapest and therefore most efficient way of providing a general baseline for the pre-positioning of preparedness tools is satellite navigation. Nevertheless, restricting a strategy to the use of Earth Observation satellites for vulnerability mapping only is not enough. In a world of countless interacting and developing vulnerabilities, it is extremely hard to get a holistic picture. An attempt to illustrate the already existing preparedness level of communities at risk would add a new layer to humanitarian aid. Combining this approach with already existing vulnerability and capacity assessments on site might even increase benefits of relief operations in the long run.

As a first step, some basic questions about the equipment of humanitarian aid organizations have to be answered:

‰Û¢ Which emergency response/preparedness tools located where (not only WatSan-Kits)?

‰Û¢ What is their condition with regard to future use? (Emergency response equipment is always left behind due to high costs for return transport)

‰Û¢ Do people on site know how to operate the equipment? Are these people available?

‰Û¢ How quickly can equipment be transported to the disaster area?

‰Û¢ In which radius can it be used?

Phase two aims at identifying a suitable environment for preparedness activities. Therefore, it is necessary to investigate:

‰Û¢ which interdisciplinary parameters indicate increased vulnerability

‰Û¢ which parameters can be assessed/monitored by satellite navigation.

That second step would enable more individual technical solutions and a scientific basis for the deployment of preparedness equipment. Additionally, communicating vulnerabilities by maps would give threatened societies with little experience in (natural) disaster response a tangible reason to practice the handling of preparedness tools and evacuation.

Especially in the water sector, identifying and monitoring key vulnerabilities requires information on their relation to capacities. A higher level of preparedness generally results in less need for acute intervention. Once again, satellite navigation plays an important role. Only preparedness tools whose locations are resilient to disasters can actually be used afterwards. Additionally, utilization rates could be increased by choosing locations wisely. At the moment, the majority of large treatment units run below 20 percent.

Besides meteorological parameters, a main influencing factor for droughts and floods is soil moisture. Surface soil moisture can be detected by active microwave sensors aboard polar orbiting satellites. The Institute of Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing at the Technical University Vienna developed an algorithm to model soil moisture up to a depth of 1 meter.

This technology will also play a role in an international GMES (Global Monitoring for Environment and Security) project of the European Commission and the European Space Agency. Eleven international universities and organizations started to work on the Global Water Scarcity Information System (GloWaSIS) in January 2011. Up-to-date information on water supply and demand (in situ- and satellite-based) can be a valuable input for preparedness strategies. Linking this approach to monitoring of preparedness capacities might finally lead to a paradigm-shift — from ‰ÛÏlook how many people we rescued with donated money‰Û to ‰ÛÏlook how many people we did not have to rescue, because we assisted them in advance to cope with the situation.‰Û


COMMISSION OF THE EUROPEAN COMMUNITIES (2001): Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament ‰ÛÒ Linking Relief, Rehabilitation and Development ‰ÛÒ An Assessment, Brussels, Belgium

DEPARTMENT OF ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL AFFAIRS POPULATION DIVISION (2009): World Population Prospects, Table A.1, 2008 revision. United Nations, at: http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/wpp2008/wpp2008_text_tables.pdf (10.04.2010)

EHRHART, C. and TWENA, M. (2006): Climate Change and Poverty in Tanzania, Background report, CARE International Poverty-Climate Change Initiative

PLOUGHMAN, P. (1995): The American Print News Media ‰ÛÏConstruction‰ÛÏ of Five Natural Disasters, Blackwell Publishers Ltd., Oxford, UK


IFRC (INTERNATIONAL FEDERATION OF RED CROSS AND RED CRESCENT SOCIETIES) (2008A): Water & Sanitation (WatSan) Emergency Response Units – A Review for the Future, WatSan Unit, Health & Care Department, Geneva, Switzerland

LEWIS J. (1999): Development in Disaster-prone Places ‰ÛÒ Studies of Vulnerability, London, GB

OFFICIAL ONLINE GATEWAY OF THE UNITED REPUBLIC OF TANZANIA (s.a.): Country profile, at: http://www.tanzania.go.tz/profilef.html (12.04.2010)

SHARMA, N.; DAMHANG, T.; GILGAN-HUNT, E; GREY, D; OKARU, V. and ROTHBERG, D. (1996): African Water Resources: Challenges and Opportunities for Sustainable Development, World Bank Technical Paper No.33, African Technical Department Series, The World Bank, Washington DC, USA.

UNITED NATIONS INTERNATIONAL STRATEGY FOR DISASTER REDUCTION (2008): Climate Change and Disaster Risk Reduction, Geneva, Switzerland

WATER AID (2010): Tanzania, at: http://www.wateraid.org/international/what_we_do/where_we_work/tanzania/ (14.04.2010)

WISNER, B.; BLAIKIE, P.; CANNON, T.; DAVIS, I. (2004): At Risk ‰ÛÒ Natural hazards, people’s vulnerabilities and disasters, Second Edition, Routledge, New York

About the Author:

Markus Enenkel studied Natural Resource Management and Ecological Engineering at the University of Natural Resources, Vienna (Austria) and at Lincoln University, Christchurch (New Zealand). His research is focused on water management, disaster preparedness and microwave remote sensing.

Current projects include the user requirement study of the GLOWASIS Project. The dissertation at the Institute of Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (Vienna University of Technology) will deal with linking GLOWASIS to preparedness tools of humanitarian aid organizations.