5. What not to do: Do no harm and other common mistakes

Common bad practice Potential result

Assessment and planning

Project is planned with a focus on construction of water provision and sanitation facilities only. People lack understanding and/or skills to maintain or use facilities, as no hygiene promotion is conducted. There is no assumed responsibility. Lack of maintenance leads to problems that arise after construction not being resolved.

Facilities fall into disuse and disease spreads.

There is lack of community involvement into design. People do not use facilities because they are inappropriate and do not take cultural considerations into account.
Particular interests of women are not incorporated into design. Women do not feel safe using facilities (due to location or type of construction) and do not use facilities. Lack of adequate lighting and poor siting of sanitation facilities can lead to safety problems and sexual violence.
The assessment is hastily designed and not enough guidance is given to survey collectors.


Staff and partners have not been trained on assessment and do not understand how to carry out assessment.

Programme is designed poorly due to insufficient information being collected. This is a poor foundation for implementation.
Hygiene promotion plan is based on a model used in another context, and a local assessment is not properly undertaken. Hygiene promotion programme is ineffective because priority hygiene risk and behaviours of local population have not been identified.
Assessment is not coordinated with other NGOs and WASH cluster, resulting in several assessments being done in the same place. Results are duplicated, which wastes time and resources. Beneficiaries are overburdened by too many requests.
Drinking water supply and toilets are planned in isolation. No site plan is developed. WASH is not considered holistically in the site planning. WASH needs of affected communities are unmet, and could lead to water supply contamination, and shelters with no water and sanitation. People need to use drinking water supply for bathing and washing dishes, etc., which can lead to poor drainage issues and contamination at source.
No solid waste management is planned. Waste accumulates, causing vector control issues and other public health risks. People use toilets for waste disposal, thereby clogging the toilets and rendering them unusable.
Water trucking is planned without consideration of phase-out options or longer-term sustainability. Financial resources are depleted quickly. People continue to need access to water, and more sustainable options are needed.

Response options and implementation

Engineers decide on design without community consultation and construct without any community involvement. Community is not included in construction and do not feel ownership of facilities. Facilities are not appropriate for context. Facilities are not maintained and fall into disuse.
Water and sanitation facilities are constructed, but there is no access to essential hygiene items (or regular distribution) such as soap, Oral Rehydration Salts (ORS) and buckets. Disease risk remains high.
Water is not provided close to toilets for flushing or cleaning. People are not able to wash hands after using toilets or use water for flushing (depending on toilet design), and the risk of spread of disease is high.
Hygiene promotion programme is based on giving messages and information only—instead of participatory approaches—and does not take into account local factors and beneficiaries’ perceptions. Hygiene promotion programme is ineffective because of a top-down approach, leading to unsanitary conditions in the camp.
Water supply focuses on delivery of water, and no chlorine residual testing is done. Water can be contaminated, with risk of disease outbreak.
Chlorine residual testing is done at water source, not at household level. Programme fails to identify contamination taking place during water handing (i.e. contamination occurs during handing, storage in buckets) and there is risk of outbreak.
Failure to plan for phasing of interventions (i.e. short- and long-term). Plan is based on funding, without realistic longer-term vision. Emergency facilities are implemented, which are not suitable in the medium term (typically after 1–3 months). WASH facilities need upgrading.
NFI (e.g. hygiene kits) distributions and household water treatment is distributed once, with no clear plans for follow-up. No clear information is given to communities. No coordination is done with other agencies. Consumables (e.g. soap, water purification tablets) are used up within a month. Poor planning can lead to inequality: over-distribution in some areas, while other areas do not receive anything.
Water and sanitation staff and hygiene promotion team do not coordinate well together, with little exchange of information. WASH facilities are built without community input and fail to meet needs of the population. Programme lacks cohesion and effectiveness.
Hygiene promotion programme decides to pay hygiene mobilisers based on cash for work, and does not coordinate this decision with other NGOs. Hygiene volunteers working for other NGOs become demotivated and demand payments, thus creating hostility. Entire system of community mobilisation is undermined, and people demand payments for all cleaning and maintenance, eventually leading to unsanitary conditions in camps.
NFIs are distributed according to donation, and what is available and sent from overseas. NFIs are not used in local context and therefore are inappropriate. Beneficiaries sell NFIs.


Staff attend cluster meetings irregularly, and do not contribute to technical working groups or strategic meetings. Could lead to missing funding opportunities (i.e. Flash Appeal). There are missed opportunities to share information and strategies, as well as joint advocacy in implementation challenges. This leads to poor-quality response.
Focus on own programme implementation, with no coordination with other clusters (i.e. shelter) or agencies, and therefore no adequate site planning process. Water and sanitation facilities are constructed in inadequate areas, possibly on unapproved lands. Construction of toilets in area of poor drainage can lead to poor sanitation issues, or problems with vector control.
Lack of coordination with government or permission to build. No MOU developed for land use. Facilities constructed on lands where there is no permission to build, and so must remove them.
Lack of permission from government or owner for use of water source for water trucking Problems and local tension arise, including with government due to lack of permission.
Reliance on Sphere without adapting indicators to local conditions Unrealistic goals are developed that cannot be achieved. There is a lack of realistic understanding of challenges in that particular setting.


Failure to engage qualified engineering staff at beginning of process. Facilities not built according to standards.
Dependence on high-tech solutions that require materials to be brought in from abroad. Programme implementation is delayed waiting for materials to arrive. There is missed opportunity to support local community.
Septic tank or similar toilets are constructed without planning for emptying of tanks or de-sludging, including method for de-sludging and final dumping of sludge. Toilets are filled rapidly while solutions are sought, thus rendering them unusable.
No yield measurements or demand calculations are considered for water source. Over-abstraction, or water source goes dry during dry season.
No planning is done for secondary sources of water on-site. First source fails, with lack of an alternative option.
Lack of sanitary survey, and water source is not adequately protected. Leads to contamination and continued risky practices being conducted around source.
Toilet pits are not sealed in areas of high groundwater table or flooding conditions. Leads to contamination of water source and/or the environment in general.