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Published on: 11/07/2014

It is no secret that emergency aid is costly and in 2013, humanitarian aid reached the record of 22 billion USD, exceeding for the first time development aid. One may argue that comparing both budgets does not make sense, as development aid pursues long term objectives, while humanitarian aid focuses on life saving and providing emergency aid to population in distress (following natural disasters or human-made crises such as conflicts). However, it is legitimate to raise the following question: given the huge amount of money spent, what level of service do beneficiaries get, in the end? And for what cost?

In a context that is by definition unstable and volatile, how do we set standards to define access to water services?

Standards for emergency contexts already exist: the Sphere project, an initiative bringing together a wide range of humanitarian agencies, has set-up the Sphere handbook, which defines the minimum standards in humanitarian response areas such as water, sanitation, hygiene, food security, nutrition and shelters. But how do we set-up a water service ladder based on these standards?

IRC could build upon its experience in designing ladders: during the 5-year WASH-Cost project, a life-cycle cost approach (LCCA) was developed, in order to examine the relationship between expenditures and service delivery. Data on expenditures and service levels were collected in four countries (Burkina Faso, Ghana, Andhra Pradesh-India and Mozambique) and analysed using water and sanitation service ladders. The water service ladder used 4 indicators: quantity, quality, accessibility and reliability of the water source, as a basis for a service ladder comprising of five steps: high, intermediate, basic (normative), sub-standard and no service:

Table 1: Water service levels in regular settlement

 Source: Moriarty et al, 2011 (WASHCost, Working Paper 2, page 16)

Used as of today by more than 80 organizations worldwide, the life-cycle cost approach helps developing benchmarks on the cost of providing various levels of water services in “regular” settlements.

To apply LCCA in a refugee context, the number of indicators has been reviewed down to two (quality and quantity), and thresholds have been reviewed and applied to refugee settings, as defined in UNHCR “Guidance for field operations on water and sanitation services”. Four levels of service were retained: Above Standard, Acceptable, Problematic and Critical, as shown below:

Table 2: Water service levels in refugee camps


By convention, an "Acceptable" level of service is one that meets agreed norms for each of the two indicators. If quality or quantity only meets the norms and the other is not acceptable, the service level falls into "Problematic" or "Critical". For example, a water system that would provide more than 15 l/c/day (="Acceptable" for the quantity indicator) but presents pollution by faecal coliforms ("Problematic" for the quality indicator) would have an overall "Problematic" level of service. The same water system would provide a "Critical" level of service if the water quality is not being tested. On the other spectrum of the ladder, a water system with values exceeding standards for both quantity and quality falls into the "Above standard" level.

When comparing both ladders, one can notice first that two indicators are not incorporated into the aggregated level of service for refugees: the “distance to the water point” and the “crowding at the water point”. These two indicators will be measured through the IRC-UNHCR study but the level of service obtained in terms of distance and crowding will not affect the overall level of service received by refugees.

Secondly, and interestingly enough, one can see that thresholds for the “refugee” water service ladder are more demanding than in the “regular settlement” water service ladder. For instance regarding water quantity, "No service" level is met for a water quantity per person per day below 5 litres, whereas the equivalent "critical" level of the refugee ladder requires less than 10 litres. Given the complex and volatile context of emergency situations, one may have expected the contrary.

Thirdly, the monitoring of these indicators is a key element of differentiation between refugee and regular settlement contexts. The “refugee ladder” is simpler, but the two indicators are (most often) closely monitored, while for regular settlements, the ladder is more ambitious but indicators are (most often) not monitored. During the WASHCost project, we could see that none of the indicators were measured by authorities. As we know, poor monitoring often leads to very low water services: in Burkina Faso, while assuming that quality of the water provided by protected boreholes with hand-pump is safe, only 1%-2% of the surveyed communities were reaching a basic level of service.

It will be very interesting to see the outcome of applying a “stricter” ladder to a more challenging environment – the answer will come in a few weeks.



At IRC we have strong opinions and we value honest and frank discussion, so you won't be surprised to hear that not all the opinions on this site represent our official policy.

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