Water Quality

People who are traumatised by an emergency event and in poor health are particularly vulnerable to water related diseases including those which are spread through the drinking of poor quality water.

In the initial phases of an emergency it should be assumed that all water sources are contaminated microbiologically and when water is supplied to people in camp situations, chlorination and the testing of chlorine residual should always be undertaken. For water with a low turbidity, chlorination is reasonably simple, but for water with a high turbidity, a pre-treatment process will be required to reduce the turbidity levels to less than 5TU prior to chlorination. After the initial phase of the emergency is over, investigation can then be undertaken into the microbiological, and where appropriate, the chemical constituents of the water.


Oxfam Technical Brief 3 outlines the usual testing regime as recommended for use in emergency situations. It focuses on what is realistic during the various stages of an emergency, whilst also ensuring that water is safe for the affected populations. It looks at microbiological, physical and chemical testing parameters. It does not replace the water testing kit instruction manuals but is complementary and they should be read together.

Oxfam Technical Brief 3: Water Quality Analysis in Emergency Situations

Minimum Requirements

Water Quality Testing

  • In a 1st phase emergency carry out a rapid sanitary survey of water sources and, wherever there is a suspicion of contamination, β€˜protect’ the source and/ or chlorinate the water. There is no need to undertake a bacteriological test at this stage.
  • All chlorinated sources should be monitored regularly.
  • Bacteriological tests should be carried out when handing over improved water sources to communities and in the event of diarrhoeal disease outbreaks.
  • All water test results should be communicated to water users.
  • If residual chlorine, bacterial or chemical analysis results fail, WASH staff should undertake immediate actions to address the issue.
  • Ensure that water is acceptable to the users by addressing taste, colour and smell issues.

Chemical Quality

  • Chemical analysis should be done once the emergency situation has stabilised or when local information indicates that there are serious-risk chemicals in the groundwater (e.g. arsenic areas, near intensive farming, mining operations or factories).
  • Boreholes: Chemical analysis should be carried out for every borehole. This only needs to be done on completion unless it is in a high-risk area where regular monitoring – a test every 6 months – should take place.
  • Water quality should conform to WHO guidelines, or local guidelines where these exist.

Surface Water

  • Ensure all surface water sources are protected from (human and animal) contamination and that water is treated before drinking.