Site Planning

Humanitarian site (or settlement) planning is the spatial allocation of land to support the protection, access to basic services, livelihoods and socio-cultural life of displaced people and the host community. For sustainable sanitation service provision, it is essential to engage with site planning to address important aspects such as space, geophysical context, distances and future options for sludge collection and treatment. This factsheet focuses on site planning where no sewer system is in place. 

Key Actions

    • Engage with the site selection process early on to ensure that the location is appropriate and important sanitation aspects such as groundwater depth, slope, risk of flooding and water availability are considered.

    • Use the information from the Needs Assessment in the site planning process as soon as the site has been identified.

    • Identify relevant local regulations and guidelines. These regulations may include Standards for sanitation and faecal sludge management.

    • Conduct a site assessment to identify potential sanitation and faecal sludge management challenges on the site. This assessment should add to the initial Needs Assessment and include a review of the soil and groundwater conditions, as well as an assessment of existing water and sanitation infrastructure.

    • Ensure that the site planning addresses safety, protection, accessibility and gender issues; involve women and girls in discussions about the location of WASH facilities and ensure that lighting is available to reduce gender-based violence.

    • Incorporate sanitation and faecal sludge management into the site design: Once potential challenges have been identified, the site design can be modified to incorporate sanitation and faecal sludge management. This may include defining appropriate locations of onsite sanitation facilities and faecal sludge treatment plants.

    • Develop a faecal sludge management plan that lays out how faecal sludge is collected, treated, and disposed of.

    • Consider the future functioning and potential upgrades to the entire sanitation chain in early site planning


Site planning (whether for camps or settling displaced people with host communities) is key to the provision and access to basic services. It involves organising land use, housing, spatial design and socio-spatial considerations of the settlement and identifying locations for relevant services, social and technical infrastructure as well as public space. Incorporating relevant sanitation considerations in this process will enhance the effectiveness and sustainability of any sanitation-related intervention. Of particular importance is the location of community water and sanitation facilities, roads and lanes, waste disposal sites and lighting.


UNHCR discourages the establishment of formal collective settlements and, whenever possible, prefers alternatives to camps (UNHCR 2020). But camps remain a reality. Approximately 22% (an estimated 6 million) of the world’s refugee population live in refugee camps, of whom nearly two-thirds live in planned and managed camps. One-third (2 million) live in self-settled camps (USA for UNHCR). As more than 80% of refugee crises last for ten years or more (DG ECHO 2017) sanitation services have to plan for both acute response and longer-term recovery and development.

Site planning is usually carried out very early in a response; it is responsible for the overall layout of roads, family plots, communal structures and spaces within a refugee site. Historically, site planning has been highly infrastructure-driven and has mainly considered features such as firebreaks and road widths. Only recently have sanitation services and other relevant social infrastructure also been considered.

WASH teams provide essential input to site planning. This includes the design and physical locations of all WASH facilities, consideration of human and environmental safety and gender and protection aspects with the participation of the community. The WASH team should provide inputs for emergency sanitation and also consider upgrading the provision of services for the entire sanitation service chain. Overall, the goal of including sanitation in site planning is to create a safe and healthy environment for those who will be using the site. In addition, site planning takes care of overall stormwater management and drainage, while WASH actors are responsible for localised wastewater drainage from water points, bathing facilities and laundry facilities.

The results from the Needs Assessment can provide an initial basis for engagement with the site planning team. Technology Identification & Selection and site planning should go hand in hand and follow Standards Along the Sanitation Service Chain.

UNHCR provides basic principles and steps for site planning. These principles range from national regulations to environmental considerations and include a principle of supporting safe and equitable access to basic services. WASH is a fundamental basic service and hence must be included early in the site planning process.

Site planning for the sanitation system and services can be broadly divided into components of the sanitation value chain from toilets and onsite containment (most often latrines), to emptying, transport and treatment.

The most important aspect to consider when site planning for sanitation is the location. For toilets and onsite containment facilities, accessibility must be ensured according to the Standards. This requires places for controlled open defecation (if it cannot be avoided) and latrines to be located strategically along roads and where lighting is available to reduce the risk of gender-based violence (see also How to Design Gender-Friendly Toilets?). In the acute phase, when shared toilets are provided, the distance between a dwelling and shared toilet should not exceed 50 metres to increase accessibility and hence the use of the facilities.

If soil permeability tests cannot be conducted, the distance between containment facilities and water sources should be at least 30 metres, and the bottom of pits should be at least 1.5 metres above the groundwater table (Sphere 2018). These distances need to be increased for sandy soils, fissured rocks and limestone or can be decreased for very fine soil (e.g. clay soil).

For Emptying, Treatment and Disposal and/or Reuse, it is important to consider the distance between the treatment plant and containment facilities, the accessibility (roads), cost of land and land ownership. If treated effluent or sludge is to be reused for agriculture, the process must happen at a safe distance from housing areas. Depending on the situation, the criteria for area selection include accessibility, availability, the neighbourhood/ potential for future dwellings, topography (no risk of flooding), soil type, groundwater table and the options for the disposal of treated effluent and sludge. More criteria are described in Technology Identification & Selection.

The topography of the site can impact the design and construction of the treatment units. Sloping or uneven ground may require additional work to ensure the proper drainage and stability of the structures. When planning the layout of treatment units, take advantage, wherever possible, of the site’s topography, as it can significantly reduce pumping requirements and, as a result, future operational costs. Easy access to nearby treatment units (such as sludge drying beds) is very important for their Operation and Maintenance. Wind direction also plays an important role in systems with open ponds or tanks where odour and vectors can be a nuisance.

Author(s) (1)
Dorothee Spuhler
Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (Eawag)
Reviewer(s) / Contributor(s) (3)
David Kostenwein
ETH Zürich
Shirish Singh
IHE Delft Institute for Water Education
Rob Gensch
German Toilet Organization (GTO)

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