Legal Framework and Standards

Whatever the balance between national capacity and international support mobilised in response to a crisis, all parties must respect and observe the regulatory environment, including relevant national policy, standards held by ministries and local government regulations. Local/ municipal-level regulations are likely unfamiliar to external actors but must be understood. Where no specific national guidelines exist the Sphere Standards and the additional Sanitation Quality Standards for Emergencies set out by the Faecal Sludge Management (FSM) Technical Working Group (TWiG) of the Global WASH Cluster should be adhered to. 

Key Actions
  • Consider existing national laws and standards
  • Refer to the Sphere handbook and the additional FSM TWiG Sanitation Quality Standards if national laws and standards are vague or non-existent
  • Communicate and collaborate with relevant local authorities, government ministries and personnel and involve them in decision making about your sanitation programme, where possible

For effective and sustainable sanitation and FSM responses, all actors responsible for and involved in the response need to have a sound understanding of the relevant laws and regulations.

Legal frameworks, regulations and standards form the basis for emergency responses, including sanitation and other WASH interventions. National laws constitute the framework within which regulations provide more detailed guidance.

Regulations thus define aspects, such as responsibilities regarding ownership of infrastructure and services, provision of sanitation services and how they are to be conducted.

Standards then specify which level of quality has to be met, including the design and siting of sanitation technologies, the quality of material and equipment and whether or not the chosen technologies or approaches are locally appropriate. Standards also allow for greater accountability as well as more consistent and predictable outcomes.


The legal framework concerning emergency responses is based on rights such as the right to life with dignity, the right to receive humanitarian assistance and the right to protection and security. Those rights are codified in laws such as international humanitarian law, human rights and refugee law. Additionally, many countries have their own regulations and statutes regarding sanitation, covering areas such as water quality, waste management and hygiene practices.

During humanitarian emergencies, states are primarily responsible for the safety and security of the affected population as well as for refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) on their territory. National laws, regulations, standards and codes provide the architecture for the emergency response, including sanitation and other WASH interventions. Regulations specify how sanitation services are to 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 and siting of sanitation technologies, or the quality of material and equipment to be used in the performance of environmental services. Many cities and municipalities also have specific sanitation codes that address specific local needs and challenges such as requirements for waste disposal and sewer systems.

The overall WASH emergency response is implemented 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 therefore have a major impact on the approach that local authorities take in the relief effort in general.

In reality, many countries experiencing conflict, natural disaster or any public emergency often are confronted with significant constraints in terms of capacities and resources and are therefore unable to fully assume the responsibility for the coordination and implementation of an effective response. In such cases, the government may request non-state actors such as the operational UN organisations, local and international NGOs, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and private companies to support in delivering the humanitarian requirements of the affected population.


Legal and Regulatory Framework

When planning a WASH response, national laws and regulations regarding sanitation infrastructure need to be understood. Laws generally provide the overall framework within which regulations provide the more detailed guidance. A range of laws address wastewater management, including environmental legislation, public health laws and planning laws, within which standards for water quality, wastewater discharge, effluent quality and re-use 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.

It may not be possible in the acute phase of the emergency to design sanitation systems in line with national standards and regulations; the solutions should be discussed with the responsible authorities. Pilot status and moratoria are ways to implement infrastructure out of the existing codes of practice and standards, and may also lay the ground for future reforms.

Planning with the hand-over and exit strategy in mind typically increases the overall acceptability and potential sustainability of new systems. If national guidelines are not specific or existent, the Sphere Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response should be referred to for further guidance.


Sphere Standards

The Sphere Project was launched in 1997 to develop a set of globally agreed and universal principles and standards in core areas of humanitarian assistance. With its rights-based and people-centred framework it aims to improve the quality of assistance provided to people affected by disasters and to enhance the accountability of the humanitarian system in disaster response.

The Sphere Handbook: Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response is a practical translation of Sphere’s core belief that all people affected by disaster have the right to life with dignity and the right to receive humanitarian assistance. It consists of both foundation and technical chapters. The Foundation Chapters include the Humanitarian Charter as its backbone with common legal principles and shared beliefs, the Protection Principles and the Core Humanitarian Standard that defines nine commitments applicable to all humanitarian actions. The Technical Chapters outline response priorities in four key life-saving sectors: water, sanitation and hygiene promotion (WASH), food security and nutrition, shelter and settlement, and health.

In the technical chapters, standards define the status that must be reached and describe the humanitarian response that is required for people to survive and re- establish their lives and livelihoods in ways that respect their voice and ensure their dignity. These standards are universal, general, and qualitative. Key actions outline practical steps for attaining the standard, though these are considered suggestions that may not be applicable in all contexts. Provided indicators signal whether the standards are being met and provide a way to compare programme results over the life of the response. Minimum quantitative requirements are the lowest accept- able level of achievement and are only included where there is sectoral consensus. Guidance notes provide additional information on how to link the standards with the principles and how to consider context and operational requirements.

The WASH chapter in the latest 2018 edition includes three distinct ‘Excreta Management’ standards:


Sphere Excreta Management Standard 3.1: Environment Free from Human Excreta

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

Key Actions:

  1. Establish facilities in newly constructed communal settlements or those with substantially damaged infrastructure to immediately contain excreta.
  2. Decontaminate any faeces-contaminated living, learning and working spaces or surface water sources immediately.
  3. Design and construct all excreta management facilities based on a risk assessment of potential contamination of any nearby surface water or groundwater source.
  • Assess the local topography, ground conditions and groundwater and surface water (including seasonal variations) to avoid contaminating water sources and inform technical choices.
  1. Contain and dispose of children’s and babies’ faeces safely.
  2. Design and construct all excreta management facilities to minimise access to the excreta by problem vectors.

Key Indicators

There are no human faeces present in the environment in which people live, learn and work. All excreta containment facilities are sited appropriately and are an adequate distance from any surface or groundwater source


Sphere Excreta Management Standard 3.2: Access to and Use of Toilets

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

Key Actions:

  1. Determine the most appropriate technical options for toilets.
  • Design and construct toilets to minimise safety and security threats to users and maintenance workers, especially women and girls, children, older people and persons with disabilities.
  • Segregate all communal or shared toilets by sex and by age where appropriate.
  1. Quantify the affected population’s toilets requirements based on public health risks, cultural habits, water collection and storage.
  2. Consult representative stakeholders about the siting, design and implementation of any shared or communal toilets.
  • Consider access and use by age, sex and disability; people facing mobility barriers; people living with HIV; people with incontinence; and sexual or gender minorities.
  • Locate any communal toilets close enough to households to enable safe access, and distant enough so that households are not stigmatised by proximity to toilets.
  1. Provide appropriate facilities inside toilets for washing and drying or disposal of menstrual hygiene and incontinence materials.
  2. Ensure that the water supply needs of the technical options can be feasibly met.
  • Include adequate supply of water for handwashing with soap, for anal cleansing, and for flush or hygienic seal mechanisms if selected.

Key Indicators:

  • Ratio of shared toilets: Minimum 1 per 20 people
  • Distance between dwelling and shared toilet: Maximum 50 metres
  • Percentage of toilets that have internal locks and adequate lighting
  • Percentage of toilets reported as safe by women and girls
  • Percentage of women and girls satisfied with the menstrual hygiene management options at toilets they regularly use


Sphere Excreta Management Standard 3.3: Management and Maintenance of Excreta Collection, Transport, Disposal and Treatment

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

Key Actions:

  1. Establish collection, transport, treatment and disposal systems that align with local systems, by working with local authorities responsible for excreta management.
  • Apply existing national standards and ensure that any extra load placed on existing systems does not adversely affect the environment or communities.
  • Agree with local authorities and landowners about the use of land for any off-site treatment and disposal.
  1. Define systems for short- and long-term management of toilets, especially sub-structures (pits, vaults, septic tanks, soakage pits).
  • Design and size sub-structures to ensure that all excreta can be safely contained and the pits desludged.
  • Establish clear and accountable roles and responsibilities and define sources of finance for future operation and maintenance.
  1. Desludge the containment facility safely, considering both those doing the collection and those around them.
  2. Ensure that people have the information, means, tools and materials to construct, clean, repair and maintain their toilets.
  • Conduct hygiene promotion campaigns on the use, cleaning and maintenance of toilets.
  1. Confirm that any water needed for excreta transport can be met from available water sources, without placing undue stress on those sources.

Key Indicator:

  • All human excreta is disposed of in a manner safe to public health and the environment


Quality Standards for Emergency Sanitation

The Faecal Sludge Management (FSM) Technical Working Group (TWiG) of the Global WASH Cluster has taken the initiative to create new Sanitation Quality Standards for Emergencies in addition to the Sphere standards, mainly because:

  • The currently available standards do not explain under which conditions an onsite solution is a safe sanitation system, and under which conditions a sanitation service chain is required i.e. the desludging, transport and off-site treatment of faecal sludge.
  • The currently available standards do not focus sufficiently on standards for the full sanitation service chain (in those cases where the full sanitation service chain is required). Especially the safety of sanitation workers is not sufficiently addressed. The only effluent standards mentioned are national standards, while many countries do not have standards. Finally, the distinction between the emergency and subsequent phases is not well defined.

The following standards have been developed by the FSM TWiG for WASH practitioners addressing sanitation needs during emergencies. The improvement of these sanitation in emergencies standards is a continuous process.


Standard 1

Environment free from human excreta is indicated by no human faeces being present in the environment in which people live, learn and work. Two action points have been defined to achieve the standard.


Standard 2

Access is provided to safe sanitation systems is outlined by four indicators. The indicators are: 2.1 People have access to sanitation facilities that are adequately located respecting distances from surface or groundwater sources and with user interfaces based on user-centred designs, 2.2 The health risk of sanitation workers (all staff, including desludging, transport and treatment) is minimised, 2.3 Toilet pits and tanks are safely desludged and the faecal sludge is safely transported, 2.4 faecal sludge is safely treated and disposed of. Additionally, safe sanitation systems have to be context-specific and fulfil the set-out key actions to be considered safe.

Author(s) (2)
Rob Gensch
German Toilet Organization (GTO)
Lisa Oppermann

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