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WASH in transit centres

Key points
  • Ensure all WASH actors in transit centres are well coordinated and collaborate with one another.
  • Ensure that every refugee in transit centres has safe access to water, sanitation and hygiene.
  • Monitor key WASH indicators regularly, and the WASH situation.


WASH interventions in transit centres aim to meet the basic needs of newly arrived refugees for safe access to sufficient water of good quality, safe access to emergency sanitation, and hygiene promotion.

This entry discusses the WASH response in transit centres. The WASH sector works closely with health and nutrition to prevent diseases outbreaks and reduce public health risks associated with poor water, sanitation and hygiene services and practices, as well as providing a favourable environment for protection of nutrition status and food security.

Main guidance

Protection objectives

  • To ensure that refugees in transit centres have safe access to sufficient water of good quality.
  • To ensure that refugees in transit centres have safe access to emergency sanitation and are aware of basic principles of hygiene.
  • To respect the right to safe water and sanitation.

Underlying principles and standards

UNHCR's Public Health Strategic Objectives 2014-2018:
1. Refugees have safe access to water of sufficient quality and quantity.
2. Refugees have access to quality sanitation.
3. Refugees have improved hygiene.
4. Improved WASH in institutions.

Note that UNHCR has developed a comprehensive Public Health strategy that applies to emergency and non-emergency operations in camp and out-of-camp settings. To tailor its interventions more efficiently to emergency situations, UNHCR recommends the use of SPHERE standards during emergency operations:

Hygiene Promotion

  • SPHERE, Hygiene promotion standard 1.1: Hygiene Promotion.

People are aware of key public health risks related to water, sanitation and hygiene, and can adopt individual, household and community measures to reduce them.

  • SPHERE, Hygiene promotion standard 1.2: Identification, access and use of hygiene items.

Appropriate items to support hygiene, health, dignity and well-being are available and used by the affected people.

  • SPHERE, Hygiene promotion standard 1.3: Menstrual hygiene management and incontinence.

Women and girls of menstruating age, and males and females with incontinence, have access to hygiene products and WASH facilities that support their dignity and well-being.

Water Supply

  • SPHERE, Water supply standard 2.1: Access and water quantity.

People have equitable and affordable access to a sufficient quantity of safe water to meet their drinking and domestic needs.

  • SPHERE, Water supply standard 2.2: Water quality.

Water is palatable and of sufficient quality for drinking and cooking, and for personal and domestic hygiene, without causing a risk to health.

Excreta Management

  • SPHERE, Excreta management standard 3.1: Environment free from human excreta.

All excreta is safely contained on-site to avoid contamination of the natural, living, learning, working and communal environments.

  • SPHERE, Excreta management standard 3.2: Access to and use of toilets

People have adequate, appropriate and acceptable toilets to allow rapid, safe and secure access at all times.

  • SPHERE, Excreta management standard 3.3: Management and maintenance of excreta collection, transport, disposal and treatment.

Excreta management facilities, infrastructure and systems are safely managed and maintained to ensure service provision and minimum impact on the surrounding environment.

Vector Control

  • SPHERE, Vector control standard 4.1: Vector control at settlement level.

People live in an environment where vector breeding and feeding sites are targeted to reduce the risks of vector-related problems.

  • SPHERE, Vector control standard 4.2: Household and personal actions to control

All affected people have the knowledge and means to protect themselves and their families from vectors that can cause a significant risk to health or well-being.

Solid Waste Management

  • SPHERE, Solid waste management standard 5.1: Environment free from solid waste.

Solid waste is safely contained to avoid pollution of the natural, living, learning, working and communal environments.

  • SPHERE, Solid waste management standard 5.2: Household and personal actions to safely manage solid waste. People can safely collect and potentially treat solid waste in their households.
  • SPHERE, Solid waste management standard 5.3: Solid waste management systems at community level.

Designated public collection points do not overflow with waste, and final treatment or disposal of waste is safe and secure.

WASH in disease outbreaks and healthcare settings

  • SPHERE, WASH standard 6: WASH in healthcare settings. All healthcare settings maintain minimum WASH infection prevention and control standards, including in disease outbreaks.


Protection Risks

In emergency operations, WASH interventions have positive effects in numerous areas. They address important protection risks.

  • Young girls/children and women who walk long distances to water points are at risk of sexual violence.
  • When refugees do not have safe access to sufficient water of good quality, and sanitation, they are exposed to public health and nutrition risks (such as water related diseases and risks of malnutrition).
  • Refugees who do not have safe access to sufficient water of good quality, hygiene items and sanitation, may adopt risky coping mechanisms. (They may purchase water from unreliable vendors; women and girls are at risk of sexual abuse if they defecate in the open, etc.).

Other risks

If transit centres do not provide adequate WASH facilities:

  • Security risks increase (riots, demonstrations, violent behaviour).
  • Harmful short and long-term effects on health are likely, including severe diarrhoea, dehydration, malnutrition, and even death.

Key decision points

WASH interventions must always be:

  • Evidence-based. Activities should be planned and implemented, based on the findings of the initial assessment.
  • Needs-based. Interventions should be scaled and resources should be allocated to meet the needs of the population.
  • Technically sound. Services should be based on current scientific evidence and operational guidance, and implemented by skilled staff.
  • Impact oriented. UNHCR promotes the comprehensive WASH approach, which ensures that essential safe water, sanitation and hygiene needs of the entire population.
  • Priority-based. Emergency WASH interventions and services should be prioritised to achieve maximum impact across the population. Interventions to address immediate health and WASH risks, such as disease outbreaks and malnutrition, must be priorities.
  • Integrated. Avoid setting up costly parallel services. Assist the national waters authorities to extend its services to refugees.

Decision points with respect to transit centres:

  • Emergency WASH services, including hygiene promotion activities, must always be available to refugees arriving in transit centres.
  • Because transit centres are transitory, investment in WASH infrastructure should be limited to emergency installations (emergency latrines, even trench latrines; centralized water bladders with temporary pipeline connections, etc.).


Key steps

1. Refugees arriving in transit centres must have adequate minimum access to WASH services.

2. Water Supply. In the early phases of an emergency, it may be necessary to restrict the supply of water per person, to ensure equitable access and meet the urgent survival needs of the entire affected population. UNHCR aims to meet the Sphere minimum standard for water supply of 15 litres per person per day.
3. Water safety. The most acute human health risks associated with water consumption are due to contamination by human or animal faecal matter. Water safety is assessed using a risk assessment approach, bsuch as water safety planning and may include sanitary inspections. It is measured by testing for residual chlorine and microbiological indicators of faecal contamination. To be considered as safe, water must be: free from faecal contamination; acceptable to users in terms of its taste; colourless and odourless; free of visible suspended solids. When safe water is not acceptable to users, it may be rejected in favour of more acceptable but less safe sources of water. To be considered safe, a water source must reliably supply sufficient quantities of water to satisfy users' needs, be physically protected from contamination, and equipped with lifting technology to prevent contamination during water collection. All water supplied to the transit facility should be chlorinated and regularly tested to ensure adequate free residual chlorine.
4. Safe water. Though transit centres are temporary, emergency WASH facilities should be soundly constructed and interventions should include sanitary inspections, disinfection with chlorine, clean water storage containers, and hygiene promotion regarding the safe water chain.
5. Adequate supply. Ensure that sufficient safe water is available in health posts, nutritional centres, cooking areas, and registration areas.
6. Water quality. Ensure that all water supplies in transit centres, regardless of their intended use, are fit for human consumption. All water supplies must be free of faecal coliforms at the point of storage, delivery and consumption. All settings receiving displaced populations must possess on-site water quality testing equipment, such as: turbidity tubes or electronic turbidity meter to measure turbidity; simple or electronic pool-testers to measure free residual chlorine; and kits for microbial tests (e.g. compartment bag tests, portable microbiology kits or more elaborate field-testing kits for water quality which are available from different suppliers.) The emergency operation must also ensure sufficient availability of test consumables to ensure test can be conducted as frequent as necessary in line with a risk-based approach.
7. Water storage. Ensure that persons of concern have access to at least 10 litres of water storage capacity per person, on their arrival at the transit centre and throughout the displacement emergency. Safe water containers should have narrow openings and lids to prevent secondary contamination.

8. Protection of water sources. Excreta containment systems (including pits, tanks, seepage, sewerage or spillage) must not contaminate surface water or shallow groundwater sources. Toilets must be located at least 30 metres from any groundwater source. Additional measures must be taken where the water table is high or floods occur. The bottom of any pit or soak-away must be at least 1.5 meters above the groundwater table.
9. Toilets and bathing/showers. Toilets and baths/showers should be evenly dispersed throughout the transit centre; no toilet/bathing/shower facility should be further than 50 metres from a dwelling. In transit centres, communal toilets are the most common facility.
10. Disaggregated distribution. Plan to install three female toilets for every male toilet, which should be complemented with urinals. Toilet blocks must be segregated by sex and marked with culturally appropriate signage.
11. Gender balanced representation. All programmes must have active gender-balanced and representative sanitation or hygiene committees.
12. Protection considerations. Ensure that the location and design of all toilet facilities eliminate threats to the security of users, especially women and girls, day and night.
13. Universal access. Ensure that all toilets can be used safely by all members of the population, including children, older persons and pregnant women. Dedicated toilet facilities for people with disabilities should be foreseen and constructed considering the results from community consultations and relevant guidelines.
14. Hand-washing. Ensure that all communal toilets have hand-washing facilities, with soap, and that arrangements are in place to ensure they remain functional.
15. Toilet cleaning and maintenance. Because transit centres are temporary, WASH agencies should take responsibility for cleaning and maintaining communal toilets, at least three times per day.
16. Bathing and laundry facilities. Ensure that the refugee population has access to bathing facilities and can launder clothes and bedding. These facilities should provide privacy and dignity. They should be disaggregated by sex. The ratio for bathing/showering facilities should be the same as for toilets.
17. Drainage. Ensure wastewater (from tap stands, bathing and laundering) is disposed of in properly designed drainage systems. In arid zones, runoff may be reused in sub-surface irrigation systems (e.g. for gardening purposes).
18. Monitoring. Ensure that sanitation services and systems are monitored regularly (for coverage, access, cleanliness, security, use and condition, etc.). Progress reports must be communicated transparently at regular intervals to beneficiaries, local authorities and donors. A functional complaints and follow-up system must be established.
19.Accountability. Ensure that feedback on the WASH facilities from refugees is invited and considered, even if the duration of stay in the transit centre is short. Such feedback can also be sought through the WASH refugee feedback app.
20. Exit strategies. Ensure that a clear exit strategy exists from the start. Planning should consider the operation, maintenance, transition and eventual decommissioning of water and toilet infrastructures.

Hygiene promotion
21. Immediate dissemination of key hygiene messages. UNHCR field staff and their partners must ensure that refugees receive clear hygiene messages on their arrival in transit centres. Messages must be in their own language, and must focus on key risk practices that generate the most critical hygiene risks. Do not attempt to communicate too many hygiene messages. Concentrate on the practices that are most responsible for disease transmission and interventions to prevent them.
22. Monitoring. Continue to monitor hygiene practices in transit centres, to detect unhealthy or risky hygiene behaviour and misuse of WASH infrastructures. Community outreach workers should monitor communal WASH infrastructures as one of their routine activities in the refugee community.
23. Solid Waste Management. Ensure solid waste is managed through regular collection and safe disposal at managed disposal sites.
24. Eliminating high-risk disease vectors. Ensure that high-risk disease vectors are adequately controlled, using safe vector control techniques (especially flies which tend to breed rapidly in pit latrines, mosquitos and vermin). Clean up dumps of organic solid waste, faeces, or other potential breeding sites for disease vectors. The elimination of high-risk disease vectors should be given the same priority as water supply, excreta management, and hygiene promotion. Work closely with site planners to identify dumping sites for solid waste disposal and to drain any stagnant waters within the transit center.

Key management considerations

Given the multitude of actors in transit centres, it is vital to ensure that WASH programmes are strongly coordinated, so that all needs are covered and follow-up assured.

UNHCR must ensure that adequate WASH services are available in transit centres. To this end, collaborate closely with national water authorities (and, where relevant, owners of the transit site).

Given that UNHCR has an overall accountability for the refugee response, UNHCR should deploy WASH staff as soon as possible to support the assessment, relevant WASH strategy and support the operational response.

UNHCR should ensure that the WASH situation in transit centres is monitored and that relevant stakeholders receive regular reports, and can therefore respond rapidly if the situation changes. The Emergency form of the WASH monthly report card should be used. The HQ team is available to provide remote and direct support. Contact [email protected].

Resources and partnerships


  • Experienced WASH officers from UNHCR.


  • Close collaboration with the national water authorities is crucial
  • Relevant NGOs (international and national,) and UN agencies such as UNICEF
  • Establish predictable partnership agreements at field level at an early date, so that interventions can be implemented rapidly.


Main contacts

Contact the DRS/WASH unit at: [email protected]

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