Institutional Environment and Coordination

Coordination helps to ensure participation and needs-based coverage, avoid duplication, prioritise interventions and maximise the quality of the response and use of available resources. 

During humanitarian emergencies, national governments have the primary responsibility for the safety and security of the affected population as well as for refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in their territory. The government also generally assumes the responsibility for coordination and is often described in national disaster management policies. In large-scale crises, ad hoc time-bound coordination mechanisms are often introduced. Where these are included in a national disaster management plan, government leadership will usually be strong and must be supported by international agencies. The refugee coordination mechanism, led by UNHCR, may maintain a distance from the national government to retain impartial protection oversight, but communication between the parties is nonetheless essential. 

If nationally led coordination is not possible, the internationally developed cluster coordination mechanism may have to be activated. 

Key Actions

  • Collaborate with and empower government ministries and the personnel of water and sanitation utilities and involve them in decision-making about sanitation interventions.

  • Establish links with development partners such as utilities, local authorities or development NGOs.

  • Be aware of and respect national laws and regulations regarding sanitation. A range of laws exists to address wastewater management, including environmental legislation, public health laws and planning laws, within which standards for water quality, wastewater discharge, effluent quality and reuse as well as environmental standards to protect water sources can be found. Codes of practice often state which systems are accepted and how they should be designed and built.

  • Share information transparently with other stakeholders during sector/cluster meetings (e.g. minutes of coordination meetings, assessment and monitoring tools and data, information on existing and planned programmes, intervention areas, disease prevalence, or sanitation service levels).

  • Identify and follow up on the action points from coordination meetings (these should clearly state roles, responsibilities and deadlines).

  • Work with the WASH cluster’s Technical Working Group (TWiG) that deals specifically with sanitation and Faecal Sludge Management (FSM) to ensure it is given adequate attention. Advocate for a sanitation TWiG if it does not exist.

  • Share information between coordination meetings in the non-acute stage of an emergency to reduce the information load during meetings.

  • Ensure that there is well-briefed agency representation at the meetings and in sector working groups to facilitate effective information flow between different sectors.


The overall WASH emergency response is usually led and coordinated by water and sanitation-related government departments. Local government, therefore, plays an important role and is usually responsible for all local public services, land issues, and disposal and discharge sites. National policies and decisions will have a major impact on the approach taken by local authorities in the relief effort in general. It is therefore of utmost importance that emergency response operations supported by external or non-governmental agencies do not counteract or operate in isolation or in parallel to government efforts. Local coordination structures, such as those established by national government bodies, local authorities, civil society and sector-working groups, should be identified, used, strengthened and supported where they exist. Existing national capacities and local structures should always be the starting point when planning emergency response services and, where required, should be assisted by targeted capacity building measures. Strengthening local governments should be an envisioned side-effect of a successful and effective humanitarian response.

Achieving Humanitarian Minimum Standards in one area may influence progress in other areas as overall public health is affected by numerous factors. Close coordination and collaboration with other sectors (e.g. shelter, food security, protection and health) as well as with local authorities and other responding agencies are therefore vital to protect public health and optimise the quality of the responses.

The active engagement of local development actors, platforms and civil society in the coordination structures also makes use of their comparative advantages, expertise and experience in the area and helps to ensure an incremental hand-over to development partners.


National laws, regulations, standards and codes provide the architecture for the emergency response, including sanitation and other WASH interventions, amongst which regulations provide the most detailed guidance. Regulations specify how sanitation services will be provided and by whom, what delivery Standards should be met, the ownership of infrastructure and services, and how Operation and Maintenance Models are to be designed and implemented. Standards and codes specify, for example, the level of wastewater treatment needed to protect the quality of receiving waters, the design of sanitation technologies and the quality of Material and Equipment to be used in the performance of environmental services. If national guidelines are not specific or existent, the Sphere Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response (Sphere Association 2018) should be referred to.

It may not be possible in the acute phase of the emergency to design sanitation systems in line with national standards and regulations. Often a phased approach should be adopted and all activities and plans discussed and agreed with the responsible authorities. Pilot status and moratoria are ways to implement infrastructure outside the existing codes of practice and standards and may also lay the ground for future reforms.

If effective government coordination structures do not exist, are weak, or if the scale of a crisis goes beyond their coping capacities, another time-bound coordination structure such as the internationally developed cluster system is a viable alternative and must be supported by all WASH stakeholders. This coordination system should prioritise the involvement and empowerment of the local government. The goal of the cluster mechanism is to improve preparedness and coordination, respond predictably to humanitarian emergencies and provide clear leadership and accountability in the main areas of humanitarian response to improve the response quality for affected populations.

The WASH cluster provides an open, formal platform for all emergency WASH actors to coordinate and work together. The cluster lead agency for the WASH cluster is UNICEF. The WASH cluster can also be administered or co-led by a local or international NGO with the WASH expertise and the necessary local networks to fulfil this role. Cluster coordination arrangements will depend on the government, UN and NGO response capacity and the presence and effectiveness of existing coordination mechanisms as well as on the scale, phasing, and anticipated duration of the emergency. Whatever structure is adopted, it must be flexible enough to suit all stages of the emergency response e.g. expanding during intensive relief activities and scaling back as the cluster merges or phases out. Identifying an appropriate coordination structure at the national level will depend on the government structures and coordination mechanisms that are already in place.

Other sectors such as the health, shelter, camp coordination and camp management or food security and nutrition may have different objectives but they often share wider goals (such as improved health, safety and security of the population, improved information for planning, improved efficiencies and targeting of resources or increased trust in public services). Hence cross-sector coordination is vital to identify and use synergies, develop collective outcomes and ensure a coordinated response. It may include joint training, initial joint multi-sectoral needs assessments, the continuous sharing of information across sectors and the active involvement of other sectors in planning and coordinating WASH interventions.

Effective coordination needs the pro-active participation and commitment of all involved partners (including the affected population, relevant ministries and public institutions, UN agencies, other sector/cluster coordinators, local and international NGOs, the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, donors and the private sector).

Planning with the Hand-Over and Exit Strategy in mind typically increases the overall acceptability and potential sustainability of new systems. Because of the life-saving nature of emergency coordination mechanisms, there can be weaker links to existing development sector coordination platforms. However, coordination efforts must be aligned with the development sector, particularly during the non-acute stabilisation and recovery phase. Coordination with local entities responsible for host communities is also vital to avoid adverse effects and tensions between the affected population and host communities (i.e. ‘do no harm’).

In refugee or internally displaced contexts, implementing organisations need to coordinate to ensure the continuity of water and sanitation services and establish comparable service levels in different locations and between refugee and host communities. This coordination will also support longer-term Operation and Maintenance, build sustained changes in Hygiene Behaviour and improve the safety and Protection of the affected population. In protracted crises, it is of particular importance that development and humanitarian actors work side-by-side to address structural and economic impacts and help prevent further fragility and instability.

Author(s) (1)
Rob Gensch
German Toilet Organization (GTO)
Reviewer(s) / Contributor(s) (1)
Marij Zwart
Netherlands Red Cross (NLRC)

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