Sanitation Software

Sanitation software is a package of interventions that enable affected people to identify, plan and implement sanitation solutions in emergencies in collaboration with humanitarian agencies. Sanitation software is designed to increase the effectiveness of sanitation interventions by complementing the hardware with sanitation behaviour change and community engagement. Equally important is the creation of an enabling environment; this includes the use of appropriate technologies as well as socio-cultural acceptance, appropriate skills and capacity, government support, financial arrangements and a regulatory framework. 

Key Actions

    • Aim to implement awareness-raising and hygiene promotion during the immediate response to:

        • Avoid open defecation at all cost

        • Ensure that all groups of people who access the sanitation facilities feel ownership, use and maintain them effectively

        • Ensure that, when no sanitation facilities can be provided, affected people can still safely manage their (adult and children’s) faeces, anal cleansing and menstruation

        • Ensure that all groups of people wash their hands with soap after toilet use and after contact with children’s excreta

    • Ensure that capacities for sanitation software are available either within the team or in collaboration with other organisations, or advocate for additional software sanitation capacity if needed

    • Use behaviour change campaigns to influence and encourage affected people to adopt new behaviours and actions. Campaigns include information provision, creating awareness, increasing knowledge or education

    • Use a mixture of communication channels that are used and trusted by all groups of people and selected in consultation with the affected population. Include interactive materials if possible, digital communication tools that encourage discussion and action and mass media if appropriate

    • Develop a good understanding of the affected people’s motivators for change. Universal motivators for sanitation behaviour change such as avoiding disgust, desire for social status, privacy and safety or nurturing/protecting loved ones are strong drivers for change (see also IFRC 2008).

    • Allocate time to run a proper consultation with the affected population at the beginning of the response. Consultation is part of the planning phase and is done as part of a rapid needs assessment. Consulting hard-to-reach groups can be difficult but is important even if it delays the planning. See also Inclusive Planning and Participation for more information on consultation

    • Discuss the feasibility and selection of sanitation options with the community and local government. If people’s preferences are not technically feasible, discuss alternative options with the community. Government officials may also have strong opinions about the selection and design of the facilities. Managing different opinions and preferences expressed by different stakeholders might be difficult, but it is important to invest the time and effort to reach a collective agreement. See also Technology Identification.

    • Include gender-sensitive communication materials and engagement mechanisms. Aim to strengthen gender-sensitive community structures (e.g. sanitation committees or toilet caretakers)

    • Establish and communicate clear roles and responsibilities for all stakeholders, particularly in complex sanitation systems. If an external sanitation service provider is engaged (e.g. in more complex operation and maintenance systems) make sure users, communities and the service providers know who is doing what and are kept informed through management and operational plans.

    • Make sure alternative solutions such as potties used at home can be cleaned in a nearby toilet and disposable menstrual pads or nappies can be safely disposed of through a proper Solid Waste Management system. More information can be found in IFRC 2021 

    • Assess the availability of sanitation items and commodities in local markets and agree on the available options with end users. Once agreed upon, the items can be included in cash-based interventions. More information can be found in IFRC 2021 

    • Ensure that the software programme is coordinated and agreed upon with local government, an adequate budget is available and all actions are in line with local regulatory frameworks


Even when sanitation infrastructure and services are provided (especially if they are shared facilities) they are often not used or cared for by the users. Recent research suggests that, on average, 40% of women living in an emergency setting do not use the toilets provided. This is often because women feel unsafe and exposed visiting the toilets, the latrines are unclean, lack privacy, lighting and door locks: users conclude that open defecation may be a more suitable and convenient option. Lack of sanitation, due to a lack of infrastructure or limited use, creates health risks through increased exposure to faecal-oral transmitted diseases; it also affects people’s dignity and can increase sexual abuse.

Sanitation software includes all the elements needed to enable and mobilise women, men, and children to take action to mitigate these risks by promoting the adoption of safe sanitation behaviour (see also Hygiene Promotion).


A software package covers six areas of work, also outlined in the Compendium of Hygiene Promotion in Emergencies.

All six areas of work are interconnected. When implemented together with hardware interventions, health outcomes can be improved.

    1. Behaviour Change (see also Hygiene Promotion)

People affected may have previously had access to sanitation facilities and used them correctly before the disaster. In this case, hygiene promoters and sanitation engineers may help them to adjust to their new environment (e.g. a camp or host community) whilst taking into account their previous habits. Sanitation solutions in this scenario aim to support positive sanitation behaviour that existed before the disaster.

Others may not have had access to sanitation facilities in the past; they may have never, or only occasionally, used a toilet. In that case, hygiene promoters work with the community to promote and establish new behaviours. They communicate community perceptions and preferences to the engineers so that convenient, acceptable and attractive facilities can be provided that motivate new sanitation behaviours in potentially less receptive users.

Enabling behaviour change in an emergency can be difficult; it requires the use of appropriate tools, approaches and methods adapted to the given context. Some have defined hygiene promotion as an art, not a science. More detailed information on social and behaviour change can be found in the Compendium of Hygiene Promotion in Emergencies.

    1. Community Engagement (see also Inclusive Planning and Participation and How to Plan for Inclusive Sanitation?)

Hygiene promoters help affected people, especially the most vulnerable such as children, the elderly or people with disabilities, to participate in the identification of appropriate sanitation solutions. Their preferences and opinions inform the engineering designs in the planning phase before any construction or response has started; this is essential, even at the cost of delaying the intervention. Hygiene promoters continue to facilitate people’s participation, enabling users to feedback to the engineering team on their satisfaction with the design and their user experience throughout the intervention.

    1. Operation and Maintenance (see also Management and Operation Plans)

Hygiene promoters work closely with engineers to ensure affected people feel ownership of and responsibility for the facilities or services along the entire sanitation chain, from the toilet, collection and emptying to transport, treatment and ultimate safe disposal and/or reuse. The intention is that facilities are used with care and a system of cleaning, minor repairs and re-stocking of anal cleansing materials is established. When the sanitation chain is more complex and includes external service providers as part of the operation and maintenance system, then hygiene promoters may help affected people to accept the service providers and understand their roles and responsibilities. Hygiene promoters help users to file complaints when service providers do not perform and provide a link with the engineers to identify solutions.

    1. Special Equipment

Users, especially the most vulnerable (such as children under three years old, the elderly, people with disabilities or those suffering from incontinence) may have special sanitation needs that require non-engineering solutions. Hygiene promoters can help to identify and select appropriate sanitation options based on people’s preferences – such as nappies, potties, or sitting aids to meet their needs. Other items like soap and toilet paper are enablers of safe sanitation behaviour and protect human dignity and mental health. More information can be found in the WASH Cluster briefing note on Hygiene related NFIs (UNICEF 2007).

    1. Communication and Engagement with Stakeholders (see also Enabling Environment)

Hygiene promoters are often responsible for communication campaigns designed so that the affected population receive relevant information about sanitation behaviour and the services available using appropriate, tailored and effective communication channels. Hygiene promoters help to engage influencers such as community or religious leaders and land and house owners enabling them to become advocates and champions of sanitation.

    1. Monitoring (see also Response Monitoring)

Hygiene promoters, sanitation engineers, the affected population and local stakeholders should collectively monitor sanitation behaviours and levels of user acceptance and satisfaction.

Engineers working in sanitation in emergencies need to be aware that sanitation software is a core part of their work and to advocate for its integration into the programme. If appropriate they should ask their organisation to deploy additional capacity or seek external collaboration with other actors.

As well as hygiene promotion, sanitation software includes Inclusive Planning and Participation, the Identification of Technologies with the community.

In the longer term, a software package should also include:

Author(s) (1)
Libertad Gonzalez
Netherlands Red Cross (NLRC)
Reviewer(s) / Contributor(s) (3)
Rob Gensch
German Toilet Organization (GTO)
Marij Zwart
Netherlands Red Cross (NLRC)
Dorothee Spuhler
Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (Eawag)

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