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Designing an adaptable handwashing facility for emergencies

October 14, 2019

By: Martin Shouler, Arup and Sian White, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

Photo Credit: Arup

For those living in informal settlements as a result of humanitarian crises, diseases such as cholera, pneumonia and diarrhoea can spread quickly and with fatal results. Handwashing with soap is our best defence against such outbreaks.

According to joint research from UNICEF, UNHCR and WHO, diarrhoeal diseases cause up to 40% of all deaths during the acute stages of an emergency and up to 80% of deaths among children under five years of age. While finding a safe water supply is a priority in these situations, hygiene is often neglected – even though the absence of handwashing facilities risks contaminating that same water supply.

In non-emergency settings the availability of conveniently placed handwashing facilities with soap and water present has been shown to lead to substantial improvements in handwashing behaviour. The same is likely to be true in emergencies.

Recognising this challenge, Arup, together with the British Red Cross, Butyl Products and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, have collaborated to design a new handwashing facility which meet the needs of crisis-affected populations and can be effectively distributed by humanitarian organisations.

The design of the solution was driven from the start by the communities it would serve. At the Kyangwali refugee camp in Uganda, the team observed existing handwashing facilities to understand their common failings and gained valuable insight from refugees and aid workers. It was at this point that we realised handwashing facilities are not just about reducing disease transmission. If designed well, a handwashing facility can cue behaviour and promote dignity and self-worth in situations that are often traumatic and unpleasant.

At the same time, we knew that the handwashing facility had to meet the needs of humanitarians too. It had to be easy to transport, it had to work with different water supply systems, it had to be easy to maintain and good value for money. So we organised creative workshops with humanitarians and surveyed others from all around the world to get their inputs on the design process.


 Photo Credit: Arup

We realised early on that there is not one product to suit all these needs. Our final design is ‘modular’ meaning that you can pick and mix components of the design to suit the needs in your context. For example, you can choose to run the handwashing facility from a jerry can of water, connect it to a mains supply or attach it to a large tank. You can choose between a liquid soap dispenser or a bar soap on a rope. You can modify the design so that it is a lower height and can be used by children or people with disabilities.

We also realised that the main reason existing designs fail is because they break and often never get replaced. We wanted to design something really robust but also desirable enough that people would want to take care of it. We have built in lots of ‘security’ features to stop parts from wandering and have created a design which can be fabricated locally. We are making the specifications open to everyone to allow local artisans to build upon our initial work.

To test the robustness of our handwashing unit, we initially partnered with the British Army, who tested the units during training weekends in England, and shared their thoughts on how intuitive and enjoyable they were to use. With some modifications, we then took the design back to Kyangwali refugee camp. We got hundreds of people of all ages and abilities to use the facilities and gained some important insights for how we could further improve the design. What did users like most? The big mirror and the nice quality soap!

In our next phase of work, we plan to do a larger test of the facilities in camp settings. This work has been supported by Arup’s Community Engagement Global Challenge, which aims to collaborate with others to co-create innovative scalable solutions that address systemic challenges aligned with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). For more information, please go to



Category: Community Forum

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