Human emotions can wander everywhere.

Even if you are looking for love, you will only find it within yourself.

For every human being, their self is what is most loved.

In this way, who knows themselves to be loved must not wound others.

(Buddhist Poem)

In the first two reports of the series on the Sphere Handbook, we addressed the foundations on which the good practicesof humanitarian responses are based, and the ethical and legal framework that protects and safeguards the organizations involved in helping populations at risk. The third report begins with the Technical Chapters, upon which humanitarian players base themselves in order to provide efficient help to people at risk, with the support of specialists, besides the experience accumulated by the humanitarian organizations.

It is not by chance that the right to water and to sanitation are basic guarantees in international legal doctrines and laws. But the image that comes to most people about situations of humanitarian crisis – whether as a result of armed conflict or a natural catastrophe – is that of a lot of tents in shelters and settlements, with a lot of trash, puddled water or sewage flowing out in the open. It is an image of chaos and precariousness.

Most of the time, the scenario is very real. For this reason, the technical chapters of the Sphere Handbook go deeply into the question of water and sanitation. Those subjects are included in the WASH principle, an acronym in English for “Water Supply, Sanitation, and Hygiene Development.” In a crisis situation, the people affected are more vulnerable to illnesses, even dying as a result of infectious diseases, especially those which include diarrhea.

The main objective of WASH is to reduce risks to public health, creating barriers to avoid the main routes of contact: hands, fluids, contaminated water, feces, food and vectors such as insects and rodents. The barriers that can stop the transmission of diseases are the primary ones, when initial contact with feces is prevented; and the secondary ones, when ingestion is prevented. In both cases, monitoring is done through interventions in the control of water, sanitation, and hygiene.

Manual Esfera

Faced with this scenario, increasingly present in various parts of the world, especially in Brazil, the Sphere listed a series of rules, based on the principles, rights, and obligations declared in the Humanitarian Charter. The main WASH activities are:

  • Encourage good hygiene practices;
  • provide an adequate amount of potable water;
  • offer appropriate sanitary installations;
  • reduce environmental risks to health;
  • guarantee living conditions of good health, dignity, comfort, and security for people.

Practical Challenges

Manual Esfera Wash Missão Roraima

One example of the application of WASH actions within the sphere of humanitarian missions of the Fraternity – International Humanitarian Federation (FIHF) was described by the core missionary Rafael Gama, who is active in the Roraima Mission. In that State, the institution, in partnership with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), manages four shelters for Venezuelan refugees, two for native peoples, one for families, and another for single men, childless couples, and LGBT people, in which it also develops, in partnership with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), a specific WASH project – besides the Foster Home, where there are women and children who are victims of violence. In the State of Amazonas, the same work is being done in the Transit Shelter (ATM) in Manaus.

The Fraternity – International Humanitarian Federation (FIHF) manages the shelters, using the Sphere Handbook as a reference and guide. The search for improvements is made in line with the most important rules of the WASH programs, in the management of the entire water chain: supply, treatment, distribution, collection, domestic storage, and consumption; in addition, it also makes efforts to manage sanitation in an integrated manner, promote healthy behavior, and ensure access to hygiene products.

Manual Esfera Wash Missão Roraima

The missionaries of the Fraternity – International Humanitarian Federation (FIHF) have already made improvements in the shelters, providing them with areas for washing clothes and lavatories, among other benefits. The effort is to comply with the handbook. “Within an emergency context, it is not always possible to follow the pattern of the Sphere Handbook. But we are in a partnership with UNICEF for an emergency project and in less than four months we must achieve the minimal rules of the Sphere,” says Rafael Gama.

The high degree of difficulty in achieving the standards is due to the complexity of the actions. The manual provides for six categories of WASH rules: promoting hygiene, water supply, management of excrements, control of vectors, management of waste, and WASH in disease outbreaks or epidemics (see more details in the chart).

1 – Promotion of hygiene

  • People must know the risks to their health related to water, sanitation, and hygiene, and can take individual and community measures to reduce them.
  • People must have access to articles of hygiene.
  • Menstrual hygiene and incontinence must be addressed.

2 – Water Supply

  • People must have equitable and easy access to sufficient amounts of drinking water and household water.
  • The water must have a pleasant taste and quality for all uses.

3 – Management of excrements

  • The environment must be free of human excrement.
  • People must have access to adequate and appropriate bathrooms.
  • The collection, elimination and treatment system for excrements must be safe and not impact the environment.

4 – Control of vectors

  • People must do vector control (insects and rodents) in the shelter.
  • People must adopt domestic and personal actions to control vectors.

5 – Management of solid residues

  • The environment of the shelter must be free of solid residues.
  • People must adopt domestic and personal actions to safely manage solid residues.
  • The trash bins of the shelters must not be overflowing with trash, and final disposal must be safe.

6 – WASH in disease outbreaks

  • All healthcare must meet the minimum WASH standards for infection prevention and control, and be enforced in cases of outbreaks or epidemics


Specialists have established that the minimum daily water use per person, for drinking and for hygiene, is 4 gallons. That amount varies according to the stage of the humanitarian response or the context of the crisis, such as for example, in times of drought. It is very little if we take into account that the minimum acceptable consumption of an urban dweller is 13 gallons of water per day. In addition, the source of the water can’t be more than 500 yards away, the waiting time in the line can’t be longer that 15 minutes, and a pipe (or tap) must serve 250 people.

The difficulties multiply in relation to hygiene care. Each person must have access to at least 9 ounces of bath soap and 7 ounces of laundry soap per month. Humanitarian organizations also have to address issues such as menstrual hygiene and especially among the elderly, the sick, and people with disabilities, incontinence.

Manual Esfera Wash Missão Roraima

Another point that needs addressing in humanitarian responses is the management of excrements, a crucial source of contamination that can lead to serious diseases. Shelters and settlements must have at least one toilet for every group of 20 people, and the bathrooms can’t be more than 50 yards away. A concern related to the difficulties of disabled people, people with incontinence and chronic diseases. In addition, the standard rule provides for bathrooms with keys, lighting, and must be safe for women and girls.

Outbreak situations or disease epidemics gain additional importance. The prevention and control of infections is a fundamental activity in any situation, but they must be reinforced in the response to outbreaks. For this reason, appropriate and systematically applied WASH practices, both in the community and in health services, will reduce the transmission of infectious diseases and will help to control outbreaks.

This is what is occurring in the Roraima Mission in the time of the pandemic, where the humanitarian volunteers need to adapt the installations of the shelters to stop the transmission of the new coronavirus. In one of the indigenous shelters, the notification of a positive case of COVID-19 forced the transfer of around 200 people – members of the at risk group and their families – to avoid contagion. In addition, there was a series of basic improvements. Lavatories were included in the entryways to the dining areas, and handwashing stations for those entering or leaving the shelters. It is a mandatory practice. Besides that, the missionaries help the community to make their own protective cloth masks, just as the WASH actions highlight: encouraging community participation for the success of the humanitarian response.

Manual Esfera Wash Missão Roraima

Whoever visits the Venezuelan refugee shelters in Roraima is surprised by the structure and organization. There is still much to be done, but it is an example that the humanitarian response given with responsibility and technical knowledge – as proposed by the Sphere Handbook – gives back dignity and security to those who left everything behind.