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Environmental Health at the International Rescue Committee


The mission of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) is to help people whose lives and livelihoods are shattered by conflict and disaster to survive, recover and gain control of their future. Our vision is that the IRC will lead the humanitarian field by implementing high-impact, cost-effective programs for people affected by crisis, and shape global policy and practice by sharing our learning and experience with others. All IRC programs are designed to achieve meaningful change in people’s health, safety, education, economic wellbeing and ability to influence the decisions that affect their lives.

In acute emergencies, the IRC establishes emergency water, sanitation and hygiene promotion programs, ensuring that life-saving services can be initiated efficiently. For instance, the IRC is operating with local partners within Syria, providing water and sanitation facilities and services that are essential for life, personal safety and dignity.

As countries evolve from emergencies to rebuilding, the IRC works to build stronger community and government oversight on improved water, hygiene and sanitation services, and maintenance
of systems. We also collaborate with communities on issues such as climate change and disaster risk management to ensure that communities have the resources they need to survive in a changing world.

Through research and learning, the IRC is working to ensure that our interventions are evidence-based, cost-effective and sustainable. Through evaluation and research, the IRC contributes to the global evidence base around best practices for water, sanitation and hygiene. The IRC is collaborating with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health to find ways to improve current approaches by aid actors to menstrual hygiene management during emergencies. This research works to ensure that displaced women and girls are able to effectively manage their menstruation and personal hygiene.


2.5 billion people, approximately 1 out of every 3 people, lack improved sanitation facilities. 748 million people still use unsafe drinking water sources.

As a result, diarrhea caused by inadequate drinking water, sanitation and hand hygiene kills an estimated 842,000 people every year and remains the second leading cause of death for children under 5. The consequences of poor access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene are wide reaching:

  • Severe health consequences: Every 20 seconds, a child dies as a result of poor sanitation. Safe excreta disposal, hand- washing with soap and safe drinking water could save the lives of 1.5 million children every year.
  • Limited time for economic activities: Hours are wasted every day as people collect water and seek safe and private places to defecate. Accessible facilities mean more time and energy for productive activities.
  • Barriers to education: Children, and particularly girls, lose valuable learning time or drop out of school completely due to inadequate safe water and sanitation provision at home and in school. Moreover, healthy children have a better chance of achieving their potential in education. 
  • Increased danger to women and girls: Women and girls bear the brunt of the burden of water collection, facing the risk of assault. Providing safe access to nearby water supplies and household toilets is critical in increasing safety.


IRC practitioners provide technical assistance to more than 30 country programs. Technical advisors are charged with staying abreast of the best available research and practices in their respective fields and sharing these with the IRC’s frontline teams. They also lead advocacy strategies to encourage partners and policy makers to adopt the interventions proven to be effective based on our research and experience.

Promote safe hygiene practices

The IRC promotes hygiene practices that are consistent with good health, including hand washing, proper excreta disposal and safe methods for managing water. In a typical year, the IRC’s hygiene promotion reaches over a million people through mass media and direct contact with communities.

Hygiene promotion is proven to be one of the most effective and cost- efficient approaches to improving child health. Improving knowledge leads to healthier practices, but sustaining behavior change can be challenging. The IRC addresses this by working directly with mothers groups, school children and teachers, community health clubs, and religious and traditional leaders to influence community-wide practices and achieve lasting impact. The IRC has applied and carefully monitored this approach in several refugee camps in Ethiopia over the years, working with displaced groups of Eritrean, South Sudanese and Somali refugees.

Ensure access to essential services

The IRC provides vulnerable communities with a range of essential environmental health facilities, activities and goods to prevent disease, increase personal safety, improve food security and provide minimum conditions for human development. In a year, the IRC provides approximately 3.3 million people with access to safe water
and improved sanitation, either through direct provision, or by providing them with the skills and resources to build their own household toilets. Through research and programming, the IRC is improving approaches to address the hygiene needs of women in emergency settings.

Facilitate community participation and management

When designing a water supply intervention, the IRC first discusses key characteristics of existing water sources with the community, such as their seasonal reliability, water quality and potential yield. The IRC then works with the community to identify advantages, disadvantages and costs of water supply options. In remote areas of Northern Kenya and Afghanistan, the IRC installed solar-powered water pumping systems to reduce operating costs where fuel costs are high.

Many communities find themselves in the grip of cyclic disasters, which in many cases is steepening as a result of changing climates, land pressure and a deteriorating natural environment. The IRC works with community groups to prioritize needs and design sustainable improvements to mitigate and reduce the impact of natural disaster. The IRC also creates and trains water committees to promote local ownership and management. In Afghanistan, the IRC has been engaged in emergency response in eight provinces over many years. Over the last four years, the IRC has worked with community groups to respond to 481 emergencies for more than 538,000 people. The IRC has also strengthened the sustainability of its interventions by setting up community-based Disaster Risk Reduction Committees and by establishing community-based Early Warning Systems.

Strengthen institutions to sustain services

The IRC strengthens the capacity of state, private sector and local non-governmental organizations that support environmental health services. We work to ensure that organizations have resources they need and remain accountable and responsive to those they serve. The role of municipal institutions is critical in providing clean water, particularly in cases where they are the only local actors positioned to provide ongoing services. The IRC works with governments to regulate user fees for informal settlement dwellers and promote equity of service provision. The IRC promotes practices that support effective, equitable and sustainable services. The responsibilities and decision- making processes of organizations involved are publicly disseminated to facilitate transparency and accountability. 

Available documents & links