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Kyangwali refugee reception center Assembly of Jengu handwashing prototype, Uganda Red Cross

Safe drinking water is essential to life, and yet one-in-ten people globally do not have access to it. Similarly, clean hygiene facilities are vital for health, safety and dignity, but nearly half of the world’s population does not use safely managed sanitation services.  

These are just some of the issues that the UN General Assembly aimed to address when it proposed Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 in 2015: Clean water and sanitation for all by 2030. But numerous progress reports show that we are critically off-track to meet that goal. The UN calculates that governments need to work four times faster to meet SDG 6 in that timeframe, with emphasis on accelerated implementation and improved impact – which is why this year’s theme for World Water Day 2023 (22 March) is ‘Accelerating Change’. This year will also see the convening of the first UN Conference on water since 1977. 

Since our inception, we have championed research and innovation that aims to break down barriers to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), from identifying key gaps in humanitarian WASH programming, to supporting innovations to reach communities affected by crisis. Here we showcase some of our funded work, and our grantees and partners, who are accelerating change and improving access to clean water and sanitation. 


WASH Gap Analysis

Cranfield University, Elrha, Oxfam, Oxfam GB, Tufts University, University of Leeds 

Our 2021 Wash Gap Analysis set out to answer big questions around the priorities and limitations in existing global WASH programming and innovation. The report was informed by some of the most comprehensive data collection of its kind, involving over 1,700 people affected by crises and more than 900 WASH practitioners.  

Alongside deep-dives into the primary issues affecting WASH in humanitarian settings, the report posed further questions for researchers, coordinators, funding bodies, humanitarian practitioners and innovators for how steps could be taken within their fields to start addressing these gaps. Further analysis of the data put forward a six-step methodology to identify innovation opportunities in these contexts – this methodology was piloted in 2022 by conducting research into solid waste management in refugee settlements and internally displaced people (IDP) camps in Uganda and Somalia. 

Psychological ownership and handwashing-device functionality during the COVID-19 crisis 

Eawag Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), Ranas Ltd. 

This research set out to provide evidence on how to increase handwashing with soap among those living in Bangladesh’s Rohingya refugee camp, by increasing the functionality of handwashing devices. The team, led by Eawag, investigated the role of psychological ownership among WASH committees and camp residents towards public and private handwashing facilities during COVID-19. 

The research will help develop interventions which strengthen psychological ownership of WASH facilities, as well as checklists and guidelines for monitoring and maintenance of private and public handwashing devices for use in similar contexts. On a larger scale, the results will inform discussion around the role psychological ownership of handwashing infrastructure can play in improving the impact of interventions. 

Establishing evidence for common-but-underresearched WASH cholera interventions

Tufts University, IFRC, Médecins sans Frontières, Solidarites and AIDES 

Preventing transmission of cholera remains an important priority in many countries and humanitarian settings. This study from Tufts conducted lab-testing, as well as field evaluations of some commonly used interventions for reducing cholera’s spread to produce recommendations for WASH practitioners and policymakers. 

The field evaluations took place in Bangladesh, Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Mozambique, and Nigeria, and involved testing the effectiveness of using chlorine to spray and wipe down household surfaces, and chlorinating buckets or other water storage containers. The study team is currently working with the Global Task Force for Cholera Control (GTFCC) to develop guidance for these interventions. 

Effectiveness study of the Jengu Handwashing Unit to increase handwashing in among crisis affected populations 

British Red Cross, APHRC, IFRC, Field Ready, LSHTM, Kenya Red Cross, Uganda Red Cross, ARUP 

The Jengu Handwashing Unit was developed by Arup in 2018 to provide durable handwashing units for use in humanitarian settings. This ongoing research study led by the British Red Cross seeks to understand the ‘life-cycle’ of handwashing infrastructure, assessing whether providing communities affected by crises with increased access to desirable and durable handwashing facilities will lead to improvements in handwashing behaviour, and whether investing in more robust and behaviour-centric infrastructure will result in improved and sustained handwashing practices. 


Oxfam Handwashing Station 

London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Oxfam GB, Dunster House Ltd., Spark Design, Beech Grove Academy, Royal College of Arts, Gambella University, icddr,b, ISDR DRC, Save the Children UK, NGO Forum, BRAC. 

The product of over six years of consultation, design and adaptation, the Oxfam Handwashing Station (OHS) has provided robust, low-cost handwashing facilities to more than 50,000 people affected by crisis. Comprised of a large water tank, soap dispenser, mirrors and a water conserving one-touch tap, the OHS has been rigorously field-tested across nine countries, and multiple models, and has proven itself to be both durable and easy to adapt to community preference.  

During the COVID-19 pandemic the OHS faced its toughest field test. Over 2,000 kits were installed in refugee camps, host communities, schools, health facilities and other public spaces in Bangladesh, Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia, with adaptations made for children and people with disabilities. After six months, 99% of facilities remained fully functional. Alongside the innovative design, the OHS’ effectiveness has been bolstered by the use of Mum’s Magic Hands, a set of activities that promote handwashing using emotional motivators, and these combined efforts saw handwashing with soap increase by 60% across the three countries. 

Safe Water Optimization Tool (SWOT) 

Dahdaleh Institute for Global Health Research, Médecins sans Frontières, Tufts University, Oxfam 

Waterborne diseases are among the leading cases of morbidity and mortality in refugee and IDP camps. While chlorination is a safe and effective way to remove pathogens and protect water supplies against recontamination, current global guidelines for chlorination (such as Sphere) are not based on evidence from humanitarian settings. The ‘one size fits all’ approach used at present isn’t sufficient to ensure water is protected for long enough to prevent recontamination. 

SWOT is a web-based water quality modelling tool that provides reliable, bespoke guidance for chlorine treatment, considering environmental factors such as temperature, handling practices and storage types. Humanitarian responders submit data on chlorine decay from the point the treated water is poured to the point it is consumed. The tool then uses machine-learning and numerical modelling to provide them with an optimised chlorination target that ensures water will be safe to drink for as long as needed.  

Surprise Soap 

Action Against Hunger, CARE International, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Save the Children UK 

Traditionally, promoting good handwashing among children has mainly focused on schools and sharing health messages, but this project took a more creative, fun-focused approach. Surprise Soap promotes behaviour change in children by hiding a small toy within a bar of soap. When used, the soap slowly washes away, leaving children with clean hands and a fun gift.  

In 2017, the team from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Save the Children UK and advisors Field Ready trialled the soap with children in a humanitarian camp in northern Iraq and saw handwashing increase fourfold. Surprise Soap is now being scaled, with two further trials taking place in Somalia and Sudan. The aim is to manufacture these soaps locally, at low cost and tailored to the preferences of the community. 


WaterScope, Oxfam UK, Aquaya, Tearfund 

With waterborne diseases accounting for more than half a million deaths per year, it is crucial that water-testing kits be made available in regions where water supplies may be contaminated. However, many of the kits currently available to test for bacteria are time-consuming, require power, and can only be used by trained experts.  

WaterScope is developing a rapid bacterial testing kit that can be used by anyone regardless of resource availability. The lightweight kit uses machine learning to identify bacterial presence, and enables rapid results that can be immediately, and automatically, disseminated for mapping and reporting of contaminated water sources. As well as providing a fast and low-cost alternative to existing bacteria testing kits, it is battery powered and does not require internet access, meaning it can be used in even the most remote locations. 


Gravit’eau, Terre des hommes, FNHW – University of Applied Sciences and Arts 

Water is often scarce in crisis contexts, and what little does exist tends to be prioritised for drinking and cooking. As the climate crisis escalates, pressure on access to water is likely to increase, particularly in resource-poor countries. 

Gravit’eau is a handwashing station that recycles water, reducing actual usage to just 5ml per handwash. Activated by a foot pump and using gravity-driven membrane filtration, the system is low-maintenance and requires no external supplies, such as chemicals or electricity. It’s a sustainable, easy-to-use, economical and environmentally-friendly solution, and one that can be produced locally. 

Find out more

To learn more and stay up to date with our ongoing work in humanitarian WASH, sign up to our newsletters. We continue to champion research and innovation in this field all year round, beyond World Water Day – you can explore more of our funded WASH projects, or take a deep-dive into our flagship publications, including the WASH Innovation Catalogue. 

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